U.S. Eleventh Circuit - The FindLaw 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

First Amendment Protects Sharing Food With Homeless People

Despite the best public relations, Florida has a hard time living downs its reputation.

It used to be famous for orange juice and moon shots, but that started to change about the time "hanging chads" became a phrase. Even with a Disney resort, Florida has not been the happiest place on earth for everybody.

Thanks to a city ordinance at issue in Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs v. City of Fort Lauderdale, Forbes said Fort Lauderdale is "infamous for cracking down on compassion." That's what happens when you outlaw feeding the homeless.

"Cracking Down on Compassion"

It started a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2014, when Arnold Abbott and ministers Dwayne Black and Mark Sims were arrested on charges they broke a new law against public food-sharing.

The ordinance banned feeding sites "within 500 feet of each other," one per city block, and "at least 500 feet away from any residential properties." Video of the ministers in handcuffs went viral.

Led by a local branch of Food Not Bombs, the plaintiffs sued and alleged the ordinance violated their First Amendment rights. A trial judge dismissed their complaint, but the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

The judges said it was about more than feeding the homeless. It was about "expressive conduct."

"More Than a Picnic"

Writing for the unanimous panel, Judge Adalberto Jordan said people can convey a message in a picket line, a parade, or a sit-in. Likewise, he said, the Food Not Bombs food-sharing events are "more than a picnic in the park."

The Eleventh Circuit said the organization has a First Amendment right to share food, and remanded the case to the trial court. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said sharing food is "one of the oldest forms of human expression."

"We think this decision strengthens our message to cities across the country that they need to invest in constructive solutions to homelessness instead of wasting government resources on punishing people who seek to offer aid," said attorney Kirsten Anderson.

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