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Friday, September 17, 2021

Ocala City Council takes first steps to repeal ‘unconstitutional’ panhandling, begging ordinances

Ocala City Council took the first steps to repealing panhandling and begging ordinances that it says are unconstitutional and would not hold up in federal court. 

An ordinance to repeal sections of the city municipal code as they relate to panhandling, begging, and soliciting in the roadways, was introduced during Tuesday’s meeting of the Ocala City Council.

Ocala Assistant City Attorney W. James Gooding III says that the current ordinance is “not enforceable” given recent federal court decisions that make it difficult to defend.

“Continuing to defend [the panhandling ordinance] is, in our opinion, opening ourselves up for additional claims for attorneys fees by federal courts,” said Gooding III. “When we drafted the ordinance, we thought it was constitutional. Under the case law that existed at that time, it appeared that it was.”

Gooding III says a Supreme Court case in 2017 changed the definition of “content-based speech” and made it difficult “or impossible to regulate it.” 

“Rather than continuing to waste tax payers’ money defending [the ordinance], we thought we would recommend the council repeal it. It’s not anything these guys and ladies want to do, but unfortunately the federal courts are saying we have to,” added Gooding III. 

During the meeting, a resident took to the podium to ask city council members to reconsider, citing it as a valuable tool for his area. Ocala-News.com will publish his comments in a separate post tomorrow. 

“Thank the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center for this,” said Mayor Kent Guinn in response to the resident. The Mayor says the fight is not over.

“We are going to come up with a different ordinance and we are going to deal with this in a different way,” added Guinn. “That’s what happened. It’s not me. You’re preaching to the choir with me, on everything you’ve said. But we’ll fix it.” 

The ordinance will be read before the Ocala City Council at upcoming meetings in September. The Ocala City Council meets again on Tuesday, September 14 and September 28 at 5 p.m. at Ocala City Hall (110 SE Watula Avenue).