My office off of Charlottesville’s downtown mall provides me with a great view of each day’s activities in this lively pedestrian space. On any given day, I can see the street musicians, vendors, or the blindfolded gentleman who gives away free hugs. However, an interesting First Amendment case out of the Western District of Virginia is likely to ensure even more activity on Charlottesville’s downtown mall.
In a recent case, Judge Moon found that a Charlottesville ordinance, which prohibits panhandling on the downtown mall, violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The challenged ordinance specifically prohibited solicitation in a 50-foot “buffer zone” of portions of the mall. The suit challenging the ordinance was filed in federal court over three years ago on behalf of several homeless Charlottesville residents and was initially dismissed by Judge Moon. But after the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts “buffer zone” law last year, localities around the country have seen similar laws overturned by the courts. In this suit, Judge Moon found that the City improperly focused on panhandlers when creating its ordinance and struck down the ordinance because it prohibits a certain type of speech. Free speech advocates seem pleased with the ruling, while downtown business owners seem concerned about aggressive solicitation in areas with high foot-traffic.