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Panhandlers get $6,800 to settle free speech lawsuit with City of Grand Rapids

Brian D. Hawkins
Creative Commons
A federal appeals panel ruled Michigan's old law against panhandling unconstitutional in August 2013.

Two men who successfully fought the state's panhandlinglaw after being arrested in Grand Rapids in 2011 for panhandling will each get more than $6,000 as part of a $48,000 settlement with the city.

Judges on the 6th circuit court of appeals called the state law prohibiting panhandling unconstitutional, because it was overly broad and infringed on the right to free speech.

The decision was narrow, leaving some complaints against Grand Rapids police to go to trial after the ruling was issued. So the city settled the case.

“Jail time is a really harsh price to pay for simply holding up a sign or asking for spare change,” ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman said of the defendants, “So they’re really pleased with the result.”

The ACLU published this video of one of the defendants, Ernest Sims, explaining his position:


“But now that this lawsuit is resolved the city could work, if it wished to, to write a new ordinance that addressed panhandling in a way that complies with the first amendment,” Grand Rapids city attorney Catherine Mish said.

Mish says more and more people have raised concerns over the growing number of panhandlers in Grand Rapids since the ruling.

“I hear a great deal of concern from members in the community - whether those are business owners or people who work downtown or visitors during ArtPrize - about this phenomenon of panhandling and the explosion in frequency and number of panhandlers you see in the downtown area since this lawsuit,” Mish said, “So I think it certainly is an issue of public concern.”

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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