By Dave Sherwood
BOWDOINHAM, Maine (Reuters) - A Portland, Maine, city ordinance banning people from panhandling in the median strips of roads violates the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
The ordinance, which passed in August, prohibited people from loitering in roadways unless they were placing political campaign signs, a distinction that U.S. District Judge George Singal said violated the First Amendment right to free speech.
City officials had argued that increasing numbers of panhandlers in 2012 and 2013 had become a traffic hazard along the city's roadways. They said the ban was necessary to ensure public safety.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challenged the ban on behalf of two anti-war activists and a panhandler who told the court she collected between $20 and $25 per day from passing motorists.
"The First Amendment protects all of us, no matter what views we hold or how much money we make," said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, in a statement.
Heiden said that the economic downturn had increased the visibility of panhandlers in Maine and elsewhere.
"These bans haven't come about because of an increase in accidents," he said. "What we're seeing is more people coming to the streets to ask for assistance."
According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, city prohibitions on begging and panhandling increased by 7 percent between 2009 and 2011.
The lead plaintiffs' attorney, Kevin Martin, of Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter, argued that city and state laws already adequately protected motorists and pedestrians from harm.
"Our premise from the beginning was that there was no real safety issue with people standing in medians," Martin said.
Instead, he said, it was more likely a case of competing interests: Small business owners and residents, Martin said, see panhandlers and protesters as bad for business and tourism.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck denied that claim.
"Safety has always been our primary concern," Sauschuck said. "Although we were hoping for a different outcome, we will certainly abide by the judge's decision."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Jan Paschal)