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This story was updated April 3, 2018, at 7:48 p.m. with more information.
After straightening out a misunderstanding with local street musicians, it took Chattanooga City Council members only moments Tuesday to approve new rules regulating panhandling citywide.
The council ordinance is different from an existing state law forbidding “aggressive” panhandling — begging in a way that is threatening, loud or frightening to targets, and which carries criminal penalties.
The new ordinance, shepherded to a vote by Councilwoman Carol Berz and Councilman Erskine Oglesby Jr., extends panhandling rules from just the downtown tourist area to the whole city. It aims to preserve people’s First Amendment right to ask for money while also setting out when and where they can do the asking.
When the vote came up on the agenda, a group of people filling two rows of seats in the audience held up signs that said “Music is not a crime” and “I value #CHAmusic.” One man raised his arm and hand in a thumbs-down gesture.
Chairman Jerry Mitchell asked Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett if the proposed ordinance included any regulation of street musicians.
No, Noblett said, “there’s no provision whatsoever that deals with music in the ordinance. … I don’t understand the confusion.”
Councilman Chip Henderson asked Assistant Police Chief Edwin McPherson, “Are there any instances of people being arrested for playing music downtown?”
“Not to my knowledge,” McPherson said.
Henderson asked again, “We don’t have any problem with people putting a sign out or playing music on street?”
“No,” the assistant chief said again.
Later, audience member Jack Holland said the group came from SoundCorps, which pays buskers to play music on the streets. Holland plays Native American flute and tries to keep local Cherokee history alive.
There had been concerns the ordinance would have banned such musicians, he said, but with the assurance from the council dais that there’s no such language in the ordinance, “we’ll see how it plays out.”
When the vote was called, Mitchell broke with his colleagues.
“I have great respect for Councilwoman Berz and Councilman Oglesby for the work they’ve done for their constituents, but I’m going to say no,” Mitchell said, triggering a round of applause in the audience.
Council members as well as Police Chief David Roddy have said setting a rule citywide will create a lever police can use to steer people begging for money to social services that can help get them off the streets. Critics say the new rules criminalize poverty.
The language of the ordinance said it aims “to recognize free speech rights for all citizens while at the same time protecting the coexistent rights for all citizens to enjoy safe and convenient travel in public spaces free from intimidating conduct, threats, and harassment that stem from certain types of abusive solicitation, or that may give rise to interference with other’s activities if they occur in particular settings and contexts.”
So the ordinance acknowledges people’s First Amendment right to ask for money, but not everywhere, all the time or in a way that’s threatening or intimidating.
It bars “aggressive” panhandling in the city, and any kind of panhandling in places of “personal privacy” or “heightened safety concerns.” No solicitations would be allowed within 20 feet of an ATM machine or a bank with an ATM, or near an open sidewalk cafe unless the owner permits.
None would be allowed either on high-speed or limited-access highways, entry and exit ramps, traffic medians or routes, including bridges where the posted speed limit is above 35 mph.
Police could cite panhandlers who break the rules to court, where a judge could impose a fine of up to $50. Repeat violators could be targeted with injunctions, or police could charge aggressive beggars under a state law that carries a 30-day jail sentence.
There was a tense moment during the public comment period after the vote. Though council rules say commenters must stay away from anything on the night’s agenda, audience member Landon Howard, with Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, protested the panhandling vote.
He said similar ordinances have been ruled unconstitutional and this one can be challenged.
Noblett tried to silence him, but Howard talked over him, repeating his objections. A woman who didn’t give her name said into the microphone that a musician had been arrested recently on a downtown street.
Henderson called for a point of order and very firmly requested that Howard “follow the rules or have a seat. Please be courteous and follow the rules.”
As the police officer who sits by the council dais in the front of the room and McPherson in the back shifted in their chairs, Howard stood down and walked out of the room.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.
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