Davis Levin Livingston Attorney Matthew Winter Scores Free Speech Victory in Panhandler Case

In a triumph for free speech rights in Hawai’i County, Judge Susan Oki Mollway issued a temporary restraining order this month prohibiting the county from interfering with a man’s right to display a sign asking for money while standing along a public roadway.

Davis Levin Livingston attorney Mathew Winter, who represented the man, called the ruling a victory for freedom of speech for all of Hawai’i County’s residents and visitors. All people have a right to publicly express their views, he said, from a homeless person asking for help to a politician asking for votes. The government has no right to suppress speech it does not like.

Justin Guy was standing at the side of Kaiwi Street in Kailua-Kona on June 3rd, holding a sign saying “Homeless Please Help.” A Hawai’i County Police officer came up to him, told him that panhandling was illegal, and asked him to leave the area. This was not the first time this had happened to Mr. Guy. The officer then issued Mr. Guy a citation for violating Hawai’i County Code Section 14-75, which makes it illegal to solicit money in a variety of public places.

Although the criminal charges were dismissed, Davis Levin Livingston, together with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, filed a lawsuit to ensure the right of free speech for Mr. Guy and everyone in the county.

In issuing the temporary restraining order, Judge Mollway found that County Code Section 14-75 violates the First Amendment right of free speech and that Mr. Guy is likely to win his lawsuit. She said that it was unclear why the county could not address public safety issues in a less restrictive way.

A temporary restraining order, or TRO, is a preliminary ruling that requires a party to a lawsuit to refrain from taking certain actions. In this case, the TRO requires the county to immediately stop infringing Mr. Guy’s free speech rights.

The ruling follows more than a year of effort by the ACLU to work informally with the county to address the constitutionality of the panhandling ordinance.

A further hearing in the case in January will address the constitutionality of several county solicitation laws.

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