Although Tori Marlan has already replied to Tom Doody’s letter (March 8) criticizing the cause of homeless advocate Mark Weinberg, I am compelled to write. Mr. Doody, as a city dweller I am also familiar with the various tactics of panhandlers and beggars. I have encountered countless numbers of beggars whose methods have ranged from pitifully passive to nearly violent. I agree with you in that I would rather not have to deal with their requests to “spare some change.” I do not agree with you, however, in the belief that you have some so-called “inherent right” to limit the free speech of any citizen, homeless or otherwise. Speaking the words “help the homeless” or “please spare some change” should not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a criminal act. If a person–again, homeless or otherwise–speaks those words (or any others) and accompanies them with threat of force, then that’s a different story. If you decline a request to help, and the beggar sarcastically replies, “Thanks for the smile,” that is merely his expression of moral repugnance at what he believes to be your moral failure. That’s his right–and the right of any other U.S. citizen as guaranteed by our constitution. I believe it is this principle which got Mark Weinberg going in the first place. To not fight against the law in question is to silently suffer and accept the existence of a law which sets a precedent for the limitation of all our rights–and this includes your free-speech rights, Mr. Doody. Viewed under such clarity I do not think you could accurately call Mr. Weinberg’s efforts “myopic” in the least.
While I agree with your assessment that the lifestyle of the beggar is perhaps self-perpetuating, and that there may be other avenues of social intervention open to Mr. Weinberg and others, and that our resources might be better directed toward those who choose recovery, in the interest of freedom I must assert that we have the right to choose–and this includes beggars, who may choose not to work as productive members of society. And if this is their choice, then we certainly owe them nothing; but we must not permit ourselves to restrict their constitutional rights.
If you have had trouble following my argument so far, then let me make it simple: You want to silence the voices of the homeless–that is wrongful and unconstitutional, therefore illegal. This is why the panhandling ordinance is a bad law.
Tori Marlan replies:
Just to be clear, the ordinance makes the very act of panhandling a crime, stating that “a person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly goes about begging or soliciting funds on the public ways.” Representatives of charitable organizations are exempt if they have a solicitation permit from the city.