OCALA, FL – Southern Legal Counsel and the ACLU of Florida filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Ocala on behalf of Roger Luebke, Kimberly Burnham, William Anthony Taylor, Victor Hoyt Cox, Dustin Damico, and Patrick McArdle, who have been arrested for asking people for help.

“Ocala’s ordinances prohibiting people from asking for help are unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth amendments,” said lead counsel Chelsea Dunn of Southern Legal Counsel. “Every individual in this case has been subject to arrest based on the content of their speech. They have been jailed and assessed fines for acts as harmless as asking a stranger for a cigarette.”

The lawsuit challenges the city’s use of police practices and arrests under an unconstitutional ordinance that criminalizes people specifically for asking for help in the same situation where making another request – such as to sign a petition – would be legal under local ordinances. It also criminalizes requests for help in places and at times when protesting or picketing would be legal.

The city enacted ordinances restricting people’s ability to request charity in the form of money or other assistance based on several independent factors, including their location, the time of day, proximity to traffic, and behavior vaguely described as “aggressive.”

The complaint states that “the only interest identified by the City that it has claimed is ‘compelling’ is its ‘interest in preserving and protecting the lives of its citizens which can be imperiled…,” and yet, “there is nothing inherently dangerous about initiating a conversation with a citizen on a public street to ask for assistance.”

The lawsuit alleges that violations of the ordinances have subjected people to penalties, including emotional distress, loss of liberty, loss of freedom, for engaging in protected speech in traditional public forums. Collectively, the individuals represented in the lawsuit have spent 209 days in the Marion County Jail and have been assessed more than $7,750 as a result of the city’s enforcement of the panhandling and roadway solicitation ordinances.

“We value free speech in this country and in Florida. Just as individuals have the right to discuss politics, religion, the weather, or education in public spaces, individuals have the right to ask for help in public spaces,” said Jacqueline Azis, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “Time and time again, courts have recognized our right to ask for charitable assistance. Ocala’s law is not unique, and it is as unconstitutional as other similar ordinances that courts have struck down throughout Florida and throughout this country.”

The lawsuit claims that the city’s panhandling ordinance is unlawfully vague and is an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment right to free speech as well as the right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It further alleges that the ambiguous provisions of the city’s ordinances do not provide adequate notice of the prohibited conduct and lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. For example, complying with the ordinance requires people to examine zoning maps and identify locations of all bus stops, parking meters, garages, lots, public restrooms, and ATMs and then measure 20 feet in any direction.

In addition, the complaint alleges that the city is baselessly authorizing police officers to examine the content of a person’s speech and make arbitrary decisions as to whether they are engaging in prohibited conduct.

The lawsuit asks that the Court: declare Sections 22-361 and 58-171 of the Ocala City Code unconstitutional; enter a permanent injunction preventing the city from enforcing these ordinances; and award compensatory and nominal damages for the Plaintiffs against the city, including emotional distress, loss of protected First Amendment rights, loss of liberty, and other damages.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

The complaint can be found here.