Chicago Panhandler Laws and Freedom of Speech

In this blog, we’ve been talking a lot about the various activities of Chicago’s panhandlers. What are the laws, if any, regulating these guys?

Before discussing the laws associated with panhandlers in Chicago, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a panhandling lawsuit occurring in November, 2003.  This was a class-action lawsuit that, according to, involved anyone arrested or ticket to panhandling between the years of 1999 and 2003.  The city was ordered to give $400 to these panhandlers, for a total of about 5,000 panhandlers. Additional monies were given to the lawyers who had defended the panhandlers in court.

Why were panhandlers awarded money after they had been arrested?

In 1991, a city ordinance was passed 8-4-100, dealing with “Vagrancy,” allowed police to arrest anyone who appeared to be drunk, lewd, or panhandling.  This law was challenged on the grounds of the First Amendment. The idea is that panhandling  is covered by the First Amendment. When arresting someone for asking for money, the argument was, their freedom of commercial speech was being impeded upon.

The First Amendment reads

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So, because the lawyers argued that to arrest someone solely for panhandling was a violation of their First Amendment rights, the ordinance was eventually taken off the books.

In 2004, the Chicago city council passed another ordinance – the “Aggressive Panhandling” ordinance. This ordinance prohibits panhandlers from hitting people up for cash within 10 feet of ATMs, bus stops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants,  parked or stopped vehicles, and bank entrances. It is also illegal, according to an Evanston, IL flier for panhandlers (Pdf link) to:

  • panhandle within 15 seconds of a person leaving an ATM
  • repeating panhandling requests to stationary people who have refused the request
  • touching a person being solicited by the panhandler
  • blocking the path of the solicited individual
  • following the solicited person during or after a panhandling request
  • using profane or abusive language towards the solicited individual
  • making or acting in a manner that causes the solicited individual to feel as though they have been harassed.

Lawmakers argue that the aggressive panhandling laws do not violate 1st Amendment rights because they protect the rights of the individual solicited to by the panhandler. Homeless rights advocates argue that the aggressive panhandling laws do still violate the First Amendment right to free speech.

It is also important to note that advocates believe that these laws do little to help anything, as those who are panhandling often do not have the money to pay the fines, which can be up to $500 for a violation.

It is also interesting to note, on the Evanston flier the definition used for panhandling, and the panhandling loophole.  This next part is a word for word quote from the linked Pdf file:

“Panhandling is: any request for an immediate donation of money or other gratuity made in person upon any street, public place or park in the City. This includes but is not limited to seeking immediate donations:

1) By vocal appeal or for music, singing or other street performance, and

2) Where the person being solicited receives an item of little or no monetary value in exchange for a donation, under circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the transaction is in substance a donation.

Panhandling does not include passively standing or sitting or performing music, singing, or other street performance with a sign or other designation that a donation is being sought, without any vocal request other than in response to an inquiry by another person.”

By this definition, there are different concerns that arise.  I’ll enumerate them here:

1) It does seem as though the right to speech is being qualified as a quasi-illicit activity

2) It makes it appear that if I ask my friend for ten bucks while walking down the street, that this activity counts as panhandling, when most people would not consider this activity to be panhandling

3) It also seems that the bell-ringers for the Salvation Army would be considered panhandlers

4) If someone has a sign that says something along the lines of”Give me your money or else,” it would not be considered aggressive panhandling, since the person has only made a sign, and by this definition would not then be panhandling.

It thus seems to me, that if we want a law that allows for free speech, but protects the rights of people not to be harassed by panhandlers, that the definition of what counts and doesn’t count as panhandling would have to be more finely tuned

What do you think about the panhandling laws and the first amendment?


About Ronda Bowen

Hello there, and welcome to my page! I have been working as a full-time freelance writer and editor since 2008 when I decided that while I rather enjoyed philosophy, the Ph.D. program I was in was not a good fit for my life goals. Since then, I have published many papers and articles, started two blogs, worked as a senior editor for a magazine, served on the board of a start-up non-profit organization, and walked across fire. I strongly believe that it is important to work to make the world a better place – one project at a time. I’ve worked with Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build program to construct living quarters for those in need, written content for Stonewall Alliance, and edited the newsletter for my local natural foods cooperative. One of the blogs I founded, Activism My Way is dedicated to helping people get involved with causes they feel passionate about. Although my academic background is in philosophy and social and political theory, my heart has always been in writing fiction and poetry. I have a novel in progress, and I am working on putting together a collection of short stories to share with readers. I also worked as part of a creative team on a project with a hip hop artist that involved world-building and creating an amazing back story to a concept album. I have worked with several authors to edit their novels (as well as dissertations, children’s books, journal articles, and non-fiction projects). Non-fiction topics I have written about include pop culture and philosophy, project management, business startups and management, insurance, technology, and much more. I also have created web content for a wide variety of clients (ranging from gas station owners to hotels to lawyers), and I’ve had an opportunity to interview some amazing people (Michele May, Kevin Sorbo, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Mark Victor Hansen to name only a few). Needless to say, I love what I do. I enjoy photography, and my subjects these days are usually my children as well as food, beverages, craft projects, and other such things for my blog, Wining Wife™. My favorite subjects are landscapes, nature (particularly clouds, flowers, and trees), and architecture.
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6 Responses to Chicago Panhandler Laws and Freedom of Speech

  1. This reminds me of a situation at a local community wherein the police asked that for Halloween that an 8pm curfew be set by town council. Since the townspeople are a fairly well-off economically, especially in relation the much larger city that it butts up against, a lot of “undesirables” come to both trick-or-treat and cause problems. By setting the curfew gave the police the digression to question and to eject from the town limits anybody they felt was a potential trouble makers. While this seems like a quick and convenient way for police to maintain order, it does raise some serious questions about the arbitrariness that officials can restricts rights.

    I imagine it is somewhat the same situation with the panhandler laws. They are not there to strictly define, but rather loosely define to give the officers the flexibility to detain those who they feel are crossing the line.

  2. Kay427 says:

    I’m still trying to understand this. If I sat in a park, brought my own chair, and played cello, I wouldn’t be panhandling because I wasn’t asking for money? That’s interesting.

    I happen to agree with the previous comment. It’s just so police can charge those who they think are a public nusance, or something short of.

  3. jason says:

    Absolutely Ludacris!!!!! Some people need help and try to find work, and some abuse the situation. Hmm who made me god today so I could judge people in need.Help if you can or are willing.Thank you. I use to be a panhandler down on my luck and was fortunate to receive so much help and now it feells great to help out when I can.

    • misinvisible says:

      Panhandle should never be banned I had no food for public aid would not help said I was One Dollar over and panhandling save us from starvation ! It is not easy to swallow your pride and do it but it beats selling drugs, robbing houses , or selling my body It was all clean money and God giving people that save our day !

      • Judge Judy says:

        I so agree it should Never be Banned It is a way to survive when everything else fails ! if salvation army can stand out there we all should have that right !

  4. Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too.
    This sort of clever work and exposure! Keep up the wonderful works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.

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