SJC: MASSACHUSETTS COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS v. CITY OF FALL RIVER

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Keywords:  Constitutional Law, Freedom of speech and press. Statute, Severability. Practice, Civil, Declaratory proceeding

[Excerpt] – “Under G. L. c. 85, § 17A, sometimes referred to as the “panhandling” statute, a person who signals to a motor vehicle on a public way, causes the vehicle to stop, or accosts an occupant of the vehicle “for the purpose of soliciting any alms, contribution or subscription or of selling any merchandise” is generally subject to criminal prosecution and a fine.  The statute permits the same conduct when undertaken for other purposes, however, such as selling newspapers, and it specifically exempts activity that would otherwise fall within the statute’s sweep if conducted by a nonprofit organization with a permit from the local chief of police.  We conclude that G. L. c. 85, § 17A, is unconstitutional on its face under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 16 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, as amended by art. 77 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, because the statute is a content-based regulation of protected speech in a public forum that cannot withstand strict scrutiny.

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