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Ocala repeals panhandling ordinances after federal lawsuit

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Ocala City Hall. Photo: City of Ocala via Facebook

Ocala has repealed its laws against panhandling after lawyers with the Southern Legal Counsel and ACLU Florida challenged them in federal court.

The City Council heard Tuesday evening that their ordinances didn’t stand a chance.

Here’s how City Attorney Pat Gilligan explained it: “The unanimous and overwhelming case law is clearly against the city, including a recent federal decision.”

At issue is your First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

“They don’t want the government saying, If you’re asking money for the United Way, you’re golden but if you’re asking for money so you can eat, you’re not,” Gilligan said. “Their view, the federal court’s view, is speech is speech is speech.”

Mayor Kent Guinn urged Gilligan to take another look at it and come up with a new approach.

“But we just can’t allow and have no law on the books for panhandling,” he said, “and that panhandling is allowed all over the city. I mean, that just can’t be.”

Jodi Siegel, executive director of the Southern Legal Counsel, says the key is that homeless people are people and are free to ask for donations.

“We’re glad we’re coming to a settlement,” she said. “We’re disappointed, however, that they are looking at the plaintiffs as being common criminals rather than really trying to focus on the issue of homelessness and trying to solve it.”

The six plaintiffs, including four who were homeless, spent a total of 209 days in jail under those laws. And Siegel says they’ll be seeking damages.

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Joe Byrnes

About Joe Byrnes


Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.