Sidewalk Law Not Vague, Says Sidran -- City Attorney Seeks Dismissal Of Suit
Seattle's new ordinance against sidewalk sitting and a new law against aggressive panhandling do not violate free speech or any other protected rights, a court document filed by City Attorney Mark Sidran argues.
Sidran's memorandum, filed in response to a motion for summary judgment, asks the federal court here to throw out a class-action suit against the measures brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Evergreen Legal Services.
The suit asserts that the sidewalk ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on a public sidewalk downtown or in neighborhood commercial zones between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., violates free-speech rights and is too vague and arbitrary, among other things.
The suit charges that the tougher anti-begging law violates constitutional rights and includes a definition of "intimidation" during begging that is "hopelessly vague."
Sidran argued in his response memorandum that the sidewalk measure simply proscribes certain conduct "in favor of the public's right to use public streets and sidewalks."
"Sitting and lying down on the sidewalks does not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment," the memorandum contended.
"More importantly," the memorandum continued, the ordinance doesn't prohibit anyone from sitting or lying "in city parks, public plazas . . . benches, sidewalks in noncommercial areas or anywhere else other than on commercial-district sidewalks during business
Sidran argued that no court has recognized sitting or lying on a sidewalk "as a form of silent begging" protected as "speech" under the First Amendment.
The city attorney asserted that the sidewalk ordinance is justified because sitters pose a hazard to pedestrians and threaten a city's "economic vitality."
The memo cited testimony to the City Council during consideration of the ordinance, including an excerpt from a letter from Betty Spieth, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce, in which she said:
"Walking down the Ave. (University Way Northeast) can feel like running a gantlet. Pedestrians have to dodge aggressive panhandling, lewd and derogatory comments and the residue of urine, alcohol and worse."
Sidran said the city amended its aggressive-begging ordinance to define intimidation and give specific examples to counter challenges of vagueness.
A panhandler's making or attempting physical contact with a person or pursuing or cursing him or her "are some of the hallmarks of the aggressive beggar," the memorandum said.
"The ordinance does not infringe on the ability of solicitors to plead their cause with as much passion and fervor as they can muster," Sidran argued.
"Only if they forgo persuasion and resort to intimidation, coercion and threats does the ordinance apply," Sidran said.
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