Recently, the issue of people begging on street corners has become a hot button issue in Rhode Island. The number of people engaging in this practice has increased steadily since the beginning of the Great Recession as Rhode Island has struggled more than any other state to rebuild an economy that crumbled to the ground in 2008. Most often, the panhandlers can be seen standing quietly at busy intersections holding cardboard signs, which often read something like, “Pray for me, anything helps,” or “Down on my luck, can you spare a buck?” Although there are plenty of my fellow Rhode Islanders who consider the practice a public nuisance that should be stopped, there can be no doubt; begging for money is a form of speech protected by the 1st Amendment.
Free speech is not only one of the cornerstones of the Bill of Rights, it is one of the most basic liberties we enjoy as God’s children. God first gave us the gift of life (the right to exist), then liberty (free will), then property (the Garden). The protection of these three rights is paramount to the survival of a free society. They are essential and inalienable. They are natural rights that have given birth to all of our liberties. Freedom of speech is inseparable from our God given right to free will and it must be protected.
However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Speech that is deemed aggressive is not an individual right. Making “true” threats against someone’s life, for example, is not protected free speech. The Supreme Court drew the distinction between “true” threats and “false” threats in its decision in the case of Watts v. United States, where the defendant’s speech threatening the life of then President Lyndon Johnson at a public rally was determined to be “political hyperbole” and not a “true” threat. The non-aggression principle of libertarianism is congruent with this distinction; people should be free to any speech so long as it is not used as a form of aggression against another’s life, liberty, or property.
For example, if a panhandler says to a passerby, “Can you please spare some change,” the passerby cannot make a reasonable claim that they are the victim of aggressive speech or a “true” threat. However, if a panhandler says, “Give me some change or I’ll kill you,” the passerby could legitimately argue that they are being victimized by aggressive speech. This is the distinction that must be drawn when it comes to the issue of panhandlers; are they engaging in aggressive speech or not? I think it is safe to say, without a doubt, that a panhandler standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign is not an aggressive form of speech and is therefore protected by the first amendment.
Let’s look at another example. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to an election, it is quite common to see political activists standing at intersections holding signs for their favorite candidates. In 2014, Gubernatorial candidate Bob Healey and a bunch of his campaign volunteers (myself included) stood at various street corners on election day holding big gaudy signs and asking people to honk their car horns. It may have been annoying to some (we received our fair share of middle fingers aimed in our direction) but could it be deemed aggressive speech? Of course not. Now, if we had been holding signs that read, “If you don’t vote for Healey we will track you down and slash your tires,” one could make a good claim that our speech was a form of aggression against their property.
So if political activism at public intersections is regarded as free speech, why not panhandling? Is there a difference between a candidate asking for your vote and a panhandler asking for your money? If not, what is the real issue people have with panhandlers? It would seem that those who want to use government force to kick people off public property are driven by their own personal feelings regarding the presence of beggars. They view them as a nuisance. Unfortunately, being a nuisance is, without question, protected speech. I wonder if these same people feel the same way about the Salvation Army Santa Claus and his bell ringing. Why don’t I hear them calling talk radio to complain about all the Santas on street corners begging for money at Christmas time? Because, that would be…ridiculous.
If you’re annoyed by panhandlers, then don’t give them money. Look away when you pass them on the street. Those actions, of course, are within your rights to take. However, to try and use government to forcibly remove people from public property, simply because you find them annoying, is an abuse of power. There is no difference between panhandlers using government to force people into giving money to them (socialism) and people using government to force panhandlers off public property. They have rights, just like you, and in America, or in any free society, respecting one another’s rights is absolutely vital.
So if you can’t find compassion in your heart for people who, for whatever reason, spend their days begging for money on city streets, then have some respect for their God given rights. Deal?