October 13, 2014. Charleston Currents. By Susan Dunn, Legal Director of the ACLU of SC. In his column [9/29/14: "Don't contribute to panhandling problem"], Andy Brack was wise to remind us that our treatment of the poor is important. We need solutions to the problem of homelessness that do not violate the constitutional rights of people who are poor. But police control of panhandlers raises issues larger than the criminalization of the homeless.
While walking along King Street, I might say any of the following things to strangers that I meet. "Those are fine red shoes" or "You look lost. May I help you?" or " I forgot my wallet. Could you give me some change for the parking meter?" Perhaps because I look like a middle class woman of a certain age, police officers are unlikely to approach the strangers to whom I spoke and ask them, "What did she say to you?"
From 2007 until 2014, police officers in Charleston regularly asked pedestrians, "What did that person say?" If the response was that he or she asked me for money, then the police could ticket or arrest the person making that request. Typically the police would engage in this sort of investigation when someone who appeared to be poor engaged in a conversation with another pedestrian. Many people spent many nights in jail as a result of this policy.
In this country, statutes that punish citizens based upon the content of their speech have long been suspect. While this principle may appear to be about panhandling, it is really about the potential abuse of governmental power.
After the ACLU of SC and the Homeless Justice Project met with member of the legal staff of the City of Charleston in the fall of 2013, the City of Charleston agreed to stop arresting anyone based upon the content of a conversation and to modify the existing statute to remove that power from law enforcement. In 2014 a new statute was enacted.
The freedom from police monitoring of our conversations is precious to all: rich, poor, black, white, young old, male, female, gay, straight, devout, atheist. We congratulate the City of Charleston for rethinking its policy that authorized police intrusion in conversation. The change is a benefit to all who value the freedom of speech.