(October 15, 2020, Jacksonville, FL) – In a major First Amendment victory, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida has declared Florida Statutes 316.2045 and 337.406—which prohibit the solicitation of charitable contributions on Florida roadways except by charitable organizations or when a local government permit has been issued— unconstitutional.
The plaintiff, Peter Vigue, was repeatedly arrested by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department and the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP)—and spent time in jail for violating these statutes—by holding up signs with “God bless. Be safe.” and asking for help along the roadside.
“The court's ruling recognized that the challenged statutes unlawfully prohibited Mr. Vigue from asking for help on roadways, which is protected First Amendment expression,” said Kirsten Anderson, litigation director for the Gainesville, Florida-based nonprofit law firm Southern Legal Counsel and the lead attorney for the plaintiff. “This decision vindicates that we all share the fundamental right to freedom of speech, no matter who you are or how much money you have.”
In February 2019, Southern Legal Counsel sued St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar and FHP Director Gene Spaulding on Vigue’s behalf along with co-counsel from the National Homelessness Law Center, with pro bono assistance from the law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.
Prior court rulings found the statutes under which Vigue’s arrests were made to be unconstitutional, but they were still being enforced. In September 2019, the FHP Director came to a settlement with Vigue that limited enforcement of the challenged statutes statewide. FHP also began providing its officers with training and circulated a legal bulletin about removal of portions of the statute from the appendices of Florida’s Uniform Traffic Citations Manual.
Meanwhile, the litigation against Shoar in his official capacity as St. Johns County Sheriff continued.
“We anticipated this outcome based on prior rulings, but we are thrilled to see yet another precedent set for First Amendment rights,” said Julia E. Schmidt, partner with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP and pro bono counsel in the case.
In his order, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan states that “Soliciting charity is constitutionally protected expression,” and that the two Florida statutes are “facially unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” He enjoined Shoar from enforcing the statutes “insofar as it pertains to charitable solicitation.”
“Statutes similar to Florida’s are still on the books in many states and are often used to harass unhoused people who are merely asking for help,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center. “We want to encourage local governments to seek constructive solutions to poverty rather than use law enforcement to chase unhoused people from public space.”
Corrigan also ordered a supplemental briefing on Vigue’s factual and legal entitlement to damages for compensation for injury caused by the violation of his First Amendment rights.