Tampa City Council has scheduled its final vote on the Solicitation Ordinance, affectionately known as the panhandling law, for tomorrow, October 20, 2011. The measure passed its first round on October 6. If it passes as expected, the law takes effect November 1, 2011. The spirit of the law is aimed at public safety, especially for those operating motor vehicles. But there remains a question about who will really be regulated. Officially the ordinance is being drafted for reasons such as, “distracted drivers are more prone to accidents" and "persons engaging in distribution or solicitation is a practice which is unsafe for traffic flow and occupants of motorized vehicles located on public roads." It goes on to express concerns about "sudden traffic stopping or slow down, rapid lane changing, turns and other dangerous traffic movement."
With exceptions for purely passive communications (read protests) , the ordinance will prohibit the soliciting of business of any kind from public roadsides in the city of Tampa, due to the danger involved. It does not specifically ban things such as soliciting for car washes. However, concerns about change in traffic flow and any actions that go beyond "purely communicative aspect of oral advocacy" would seem to apply to these car-wash sign-wavers.
How about a person in a Rita Cup suit? A lady dressed in a Statue of Liberty outfit? Don't they potentially slow traffic or cause a distraction? Either would appear to fulfill City Council's definition of soliciting for business. Does this mean neighborhood lemonade stands are outlawed as well?
The Council is going to allow soliciting on Sundays during daylight hours. But even on Sundays it still specifies that a person should not cause a motorist to stop or slow the motor vehicle, that the solicitor must be wearing a high visibility vest, and that he or she stand on a median at least 2 feet from the roadside when the traffic signal changes. In the case of the bikini-clad college gal, it is doubtful she would pass any of the provisions — especially the one that states that "A person shall have in his/her possession at the time of distribution solicitation some form of picture identification."
The prohibitions expressly exclude anyone who is protesting, and a second ordinance gives express permission for newspaper street sales. But even though the recent participants in Occupy Tampa aren't actively soliciting anything, it is evident that they cause motorists to slow their vehicles, they are not standing 2 feet from the roadway, and clearly they are not wearing high visibility vests.
These exceptions seem to be skirting any First Amendment fights (freedom of the press, the right to assembly) as both of these groups potentially fly in the face of the law's concerns over traffic and pedestrian safety.
The proposed law says nothing about another factor that's driving this legislation: the potential black eye for the city during the Republican National Convention in 2012 if unsightly homeless folks aren't hidden away.
The ordinance does however suggest many "ample alternative channels for communication" for those who may no longer solicit from the street. It recommends that solicitors engage in hand-billing to persons on private property with the owner/occupant's permission, canvassing door-to-door, telephone campaigns, direct mail, and passive communications with motorists. Homeless people have probably just never thought of a telephone campaign. I wonder if the sororities and fraternities at the University of Tampa ever considered a direct mailing for their car washes? What a mess.