Standing in the empty parking lot of a Subway store in Springfield, Illinois, Don Norton unfolds a ragged cardboard poster and holds it just below his chest. The sign, which reads, ‘Please help any way you can,’ is so old it looks like it’s about to dissolve.

Sometimes we get donations right away. Otherwise, it can take up to 3 or 4 hours before we get anything,” said Norton.

Don Norton and Karen Otterson are suing the city of Springfield, Illinois, for the right to panhandle downtown. Panhandlers have won similar cases--arguing that begging is protected by the First Amendment--in other cities.

Don Norton and Karen Otterson are suing the city of Springfield, Illinois, for the right to panhandle downtown. Panhandlers have won similar cases–arguing that begging is protected by the First Amendment–in other cities.

Norton’s been panhandling here for 20 years. He says you can’t pinpoint who is going to give: the sweet-looking little old lady might spit in your face, while the guy with the crew cut presses a 20 dollar bill into your hand.

After a few minutes standing in the parking lot, a woman pulls up in a minivan, and hands Norton five dollars. It looks like a simple interaction, but there are a lot of laws that govern how the woman gave Norton the money. For example, he has to be at least 5 feet from the roadway, and 20 feet from a business. “You got a concrete curb here,” said Norton. “The police department says the roadway goes from sidewalk to walk…”

Norton has Springfield’s panhandling rules tucked in his brain like a lawyer, because since the city started cracking down on panhandlers a few years ago, breaking them just invites trouble, things like tickets, fines, jail time.

In 2007, Springfield passed a law that made it illegal for anyone to ask for money in its downtown. As Victoria Ringer, head of Downtown Springfield, Inc., a civic improvement organization put it, ‘the panhandling was affecting the experience.”

President Abraham Lincoln lived in Springfield, Illinois, and thousands of tourists visit the town every year. Both panhandlers and business owners see the tourists as good business. But by 2007, says Ringer, the begging problem was out of control.

Panhandlers would ask for change from people who were waiting in line to see Lincoln’s house, and they’d knock on car windows while they were stopped at red lights. They’d interrupt people on restaurant patios; one panhandler even took a piece of someone’s lunch.

City boosters were afraid that the tourists would get scared off, and that business would suffer.

“Whether you’re in your car, or walking along the city street or sitting at a bus bench, you don’t want to feel as if you’re being put on the spot. Or to feel that guilt or think about it later in the day,” said Ringer. “You know I go home and think, God, should I have given to that guy? And then being pissed because you’re like ‘how come they can’t go get a job I’m working three?’ All of us have been in that circumstance.”

In 2007, Springfield, Illinois passed an ordinance that outlaws panhandling in its downtown. The rules govern where and when people like Don Norton can ask for money.

In 2007, Springfield, Illinois passed an ordinance that outlaws panhandling in its downtown. The rules govern where and when people like Don Norton can ask for money.

Business owners decided they needed to do something. So they asked their city councilman to introduce a law that would put all kind of restrictions on askingfor money. Springfield Ordinance 1-31.06 makes it illegal to go up and ask somebody for a quarter; you can’t beg after sunset or before sunrise; there’s no panhandling in the historic district; no panhandling in groups of two or more. If you get caught, the penalties are fines of up to $100 or as many as 40 hours of community service.

“You know a shop owner, to me, has just as much right to say:  Listen this is my shop, I want people to come in here and spend their money for the products I’ve purchased,” said Ringer. “You know I want to conduct business, I pay to do this everyday, you know, this is my property.”

Cities around the country have been using these kinds of laws to limit begging for at least 20 years.  Among the hundreds of towns that have passed anti-panhandling ordinances: Orlando, Florida, prohibits begging in its commercial district. Atlanta banned panhandling near its convention center. And in May, Yakima, Washington made it illegal for beggars to accept money at 26 intersections. But the history is much longer than that.

Bill Quigley is a professor of law and poverty at Loyola University in New Orleans. He says the first known laws addressing begging were passed in England in 1349. During the feudal period, poor people belonged to feudal lords. But when the system collapsed, the poor were suddenly on their own.

“People were wandering. They called them vagabonds, beggars, vagrants,” Quigley said. “Many of the same things we call them today.”

King Edward III felt like something needed to change, so he enacted the Statutes of Laborers, laws that restricted people to their own towns.

“There was compulsory work,” he said. “Everybody had to work, that was the law. And if you didn’t know how to work, they would find some way to put you to work.  And the Prohibition of begging was the first thing that they did and was at the center of it.”

He says those laws created a sense of shame around being poor, a shame that followed the first settlers to America.

There is a stigma in being poor,” said Quigley, “and these laws that outlaw begging and the things that seek to prohibit poor people from standing on the side holding up a sign those are deeply rooted concerns that we have.”

Norton says he senses that shame when he begs.

“I can see the sadness in their faces,” Norton says. “But I can also see the disappointment in their face. ‘Why isn’t this man working?’”

Norton’s life started out normal enough: he graduated from high school, attended college for awhile, even had a job in radio for a bit. But for a variety of reasons, he couldn’t stay on track. Eventually, he ended up in a homeless shelter.  There, he met his common-law wife, Karen Otterson. They’ve been together for 12 years now.

Panhandling is part of how they support themselves: Otterson, who grew up in the foster care system, gets Social Security Disability. Norton works odd jobs, like shoveling snow, maintenance work, painting. Together they can make about $100 a day panhandling.

They use the money for ordinary things, like hygiene products, food, and the rent. The couple is no longer homeless, and now lives in a $1200 a month apartment. Their panhandling helps pay the rent, too.

In late summer 2007, the Springfield City Council passed the ordinance against begging downtown. Almost immediately, say Norton and Otterson, the police started treating them and other panhandlers differently.

“The police would come up to us and to the grocery cart,” said Norton, “rip the sign off the cart and rip it up in front of you and say, “I don’t want to see this again or you’re going to jail.”

In the past two years, Springfield police have issued around 100 citations for panhandling. Norton estimates that he’s received about a dozen tickets and Otterson around 15. They tried fighting the tickets for awhile, but it didn’t work.

Then one day, Otterson was standing in front of JC Penney with her grocery cart, and her dog, Sadie.

“I was thrown in jail, and my dog was placed in the pound,” said Otterson. “I was not able to get my dog back.”

That’s when Otterson told Norton their First Amendment rights were being violated.

“I did not believe that,” Norton remembered. “I thought she was nuts, insane. She kept on ranting and raving about.  Then it dawned on me that the lady was right.”

Last September, Norton and Otterson found Mark Weinberg, a lawyer in Chicago, who specializes in panhandling lawsuits, and with his help, they sued the city of Springfield.

Weinberg and other advocates for the homeless say the best way to fight this kind of anti-begging law is through the First Amendment.

“This is not about the right to give money,” Weinberg said, “it’s about the right to ask for money. You can stand on the street corner spouting Nazi-hatred, but all of the sudden you ask for a quarter and you can’t speak.  You know, we think that is extreme.”

Weinberg says these kinds of panhandling ordinances are unnecessary, since most cities already restrict what’s called aggressive panhandling. That means things like panhandling near an ATM, or at a bus stop, touching people, or being abusive.

“Those are the type of restrictions that most cities have,” Weinberg said, “and they’re type of restrictions that courts have upheld as permissable under the First Amendment.”

Springfield’s law says that Norton and Otterson can’t ask for a dollar in downtown. But, it would be ok if they became Girl Scouts, and sold cookies across from the Old State Capitol. Weinberg calls it a slippery slope.

“If you can do this for panhandlers,” he said, “’panhandlers can carry a sign, but they can’t speak,’ [then] why can’t you do this for labor union disputes and protests? Why can’t you say, ‘OK, labor unions, they can carry signs and they can pass out leaflets, but they can’t talk to passerbys.’ You know, this has dramatic implications for the First Amendment throughout everybody’s business.”

In the Springfield case, Weinberg argues that when we see beggars, it sometimes “communicates important political or social messages.” That is, a panhandler is not just a panhandler, but a sign of something that’s wrong with our society, what it’s like to be a veteran, say, or how we treat people with disabilities or mental illness.

Bill Quigley, the law professor, says federal courts have ruled that the First Amendment protects peoples’ rights to deliver those kinds of messages:

“The right of a person to essentially say, ‘Look, I am the victim of economic injustice. No one would say that’s not political.’ If they said, ‘I am the consequence of economic dislocation or the information age and globalization, that would be a political statement. But most people are, like, ‘look, I just need some money.’”

Other panhandlers have sued cities for the right to beg, and they’ve won. But letting people speak their minds doesn’t resolve the underlying problem: poverty.

Don Norton says, in a way, that doesn’t matter.

“It’s not only giving me a little bit of power or a great deal of power,” he said. “It’s also letting “The Man” know that I’m not one who is going to back down. I’m going to continue to fight.  I love the power.  I do.  And without power what do we have?”

It will probably take a few years to get a decision in Norton and Otterson’s case. But even if they win, it’s not clear how much their circumstances would change, since it seems unlikely that making it legal to panhandle in Springfield—or Orlando or Atlanta or Yakima—will help people get out of poverty, or find new ways to support themselves. But, this case is also about something else: what free speech really means, and who in our society has the right to it.

Also see:

Criminalizing Crisis

Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws