Back to the drawing board

It should come as no surprise that Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia has declared Medford's panhandling ordinance unconstitutional. The question now facing the city is how to address the problem of beggars occupying the city's intersections and freeway off-ramps.

Many city residents will criticize this ruling because they want something done about the situation. We sympathize with their frustration; panhandlers at every freeway interchange are not the image any city wants to project to visitors.

But like it or not, asking for money is a form of speech, which is protected by the state and U.S. constitutions, as interpreted by the courts. While it is doubtful the authors of either constitution envisioned their words as a protection for panhandling, it is just as unlikely that they would have contemplated passing a law prohibiting the practice.

The reality is that the courts over many years have defined speech broadly, encompassing many forms of expression.

Oregon's Constitution is more emphatic in its protection of speech than the U.S. Constitution. The federal version says merely that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...", leaving the precise meaning of that phrase up to the courts. Oregon's Article 1, Section 8 says, "No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to print, write or speak freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of that right."

Accordingly, Mejia's order let stand the portion of Medford's ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling, which reasonable people can agree is an abuse of the right. But standing on an off-ramp with a sign asking for cash is not aggressive, and it is protected speech.

So what to do about the issue of beggars at intersections and off-ramps? We don't have a magic answer to that question, and we don't envy the City Council the task of finding one.

In fact, there may be only one way to keep panhandlers away from those locations, but it's not likely to happen.

Panhandlers stand in those spots for one reason: because it works. Enough people give them money to make it worth their time.

If the donations stopped, so would they.

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