Woodstock repeals solicitation ordinance after civil rights groups raise free speech concerns

The Woodstock City Council has repealed its solicitation ordinance after free speech concerns by numerous civil rights agencies.

Woodstock’s ordinance barred soliciting paired with behaviors such as touching, following or blocking the way of someone while panhandling, walking in the road to get donations and using threatening language toward a solicited person, according to the ordinance.

The ordinance previously had addressed those behaviors under an aggressive panhandling ordinance, but the city changed it to include all solicitors in February. The change came after the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty warned numerous municipalities that aggressive panhandling ordinances were unconstitutional.

But the change wasn’t enough, according to a joint letter sent from those agencies to the city July 17.

The agencies argue that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it only applies to someone who “makes a request of any sort to another person,” which requires authorities to analyze what the person said to determine whether a violation occurred.

“That is, the officer has to determine whether the person is making a request or say, commenting on the weather, before issuing a citation,” wrote Amy Meek, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois. “This content-based distinction is not narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate governmental purpose, let alone a compelling one.”

Much of the described behavior such as touching another person without consent, following or threatening someone or blocking someone’s way can be regulated without creating rules about solicitation or speech, Meek wrote.

“Such conduct should be regulated according to whether it would put reasonable people in fear for their life or limb,” Meek wrote. “Not based on the content or purpose of constitutionally protected free speech.”

The City Council repealed the ordinance at its Aug. 6 meeting upon advice from city attorney Ruth Schlossberg.