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Kalispell, Missoula review panhandling ordinances

By Kevin Lessard, KCFW Reporter, klessard@kcfw.com
Published On: Jan 08 2014 05:55:57 PM MST
Updated On: Jan 08 2014 06:10:53 PM MST
KALISPELL, Mont. -

A federal court has ruled against a Boise, Idaho, panhandling ordinance, banning most of their law from going into effect.

The new ruling has left some questioning other ordinances across the country, including here in Montana.

"Is it a matter of free speech for someone to approach someone and ask for a donation?  It is, it's a matter of free speech," said Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball.

Since the decision, many have begun to question solicitation laws. But in Kalispell, they believe their panhandling ordinance is different.

Kalispell's ordinance prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of an intersection like the one by the Hutton Ranch Shopping Plaza.  Kalispell says that's due to a public safety concern -- and it's a public safety issue that officials feel would help their ordinance withstand a lawsuit.

"We really kind of lasered ours towards public safety having more to do with the conflict between vehicular traffic and pedestrian traffic,” said Harball.  “You know, the people who will step out into the streets to solicit."

Much of Kalispell's ordinance is similar to other ordinances across the country.

But Kalispell's city council decided against certain aspects of other ordinances like those in Boise and Missoula.

Kalispell decided not to restrict panhandling near building entrances or outdoor restaurants because those situations aren't a matter of public safety.

While Harball understands the recent Boise ruling could lead to a lawsuit, he's not worried.

"I am confident that our ordinance will withstand a challenge because of the way the council went about it.  It really is about a concern of public safety, including the person soliciting."

In Missoula, city council members are examining their own amendments to a solicitation ordinance adopted in December. The council heard briefly from the public Wednesday.

“We have a safety-based ordinance and the judge in the Boise case specifically talks about, you can't just make speech prohibited, because it makes people uncomfortable,” said Missoula attorney Dan Cederberg. “That is not what we tried to do; we were dealing with safety here, not comfort.”

“Ultimately I'm really hopeful that we can create an ordinance that is much less restrictive and that really targets aggressive panhandling only as opposed to this broad range of protected speech and peaceful sitting in line,” said ACLU staff attorney Anna Conley

Monday, the council will vote on whether to reconsider the amendments. If the vote passes, the amendments will be repealed and the council will start over.