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Is There a First Amendment Right to Beg for Change?

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By Edward Tan, JD on May 29, 2012 9:45 AM

Everyone knows the First Amendment ensures your right to free speech, but does it also protect the right to ask for change? Eight Chicago panhandlers think so. They've filed a federal lawsuit alleging their constitutional rights were violated.

The group is seeking class action status against the city of Chicago. They're accusing local cops of regularly forcing them to relocate their activities away from the ritzy Michigan Avenue, the Associated Press reports.

The area is dubbed the "Magnificent Mile." The plaintiffs claim police intimidated them with arrest and false assertions that their actions were illegal. But is panhandling protected under the First Amendment?

The issue has been before some courts in the past. In March, a federal judge even ruled that a local law banning panhandling was unconstitutional, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

That case involved a Utah law that prohibited soliciting money while standing near roads. The court analyzed the disputed law under what's known as "intermediate scrutiny."

In essence, when government laws or conduct is challenged for being discriminatory, courts are required to apply rational basis review, intermediate scrutiny, or strict scrutiny.

As its name implies, intermediate scrutiny is considered the middle-tier test. It's used in cases where a person is discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, illegitimacy, or free speech rights. The last one is relevant to panhandlers.

While most people know the First Amendment protects one's right to speak their mind, it also protects conduct -- potentially, such as panhandling.

In Utah's case, the court found the state had no legitimate and important interest in regulating conduct on roadways. Though government attorneys argued the panhandling ban was necessary for safety reasons, the court disagreed.

It's not clear whether the Chicago panhandlers' lawsuit will end up with the same favorable outcome. However, it does point to the possibility that their judge could rule that begging for change is constitutionally protected.

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