BOSTON -- Lowell officials have told U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock they will voluntarily suspend enforcement of the city's panhandling ordinance if Woodlock agrees to postpone a decision on an injunction against the city and wait for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on abortion-clinic buffer zones.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which sued the city in federal court claiming Lowell's ordinance is unconstitutional, wants more teeth in the Lowell agreement.
In court documents filed Friday, Goodwin Proctor attorney Robert D. Carroll, representing the ACLU of Massachusetts, argues that city officials simply agreeing to suspend enforcement of the panhandling ordinance is "insufficient because it neither provides appropriate clarity and public notice nor carries the enforceability of a court order."
Carroll wants a consent order "to prevent both the enforcement of the ordinance and its chilling effect on speech.''
If there is no consent order, Carroll asked Woodlock to expedite a ruling on the preliminary injunction to stop the city, at least temporarily, from banning panhandling in the downtown area.
Woodlock has not issued a response.
In a letter filed with the court last Friday, Assistant City Solicitor C. Michael Carlson suggested that before deciding on any injunction, Woodlock should wait for a decision on McCullen v. Coakley, which is deciding buffer zones for abortion clinics, before ruling on any injunction in the panhandling case since both cases "partially overlap.
"The buffer zones at issue in McCullen appear to have been based on governmental interests of safety, avoidance of obstruction, and avoidance of adverse psychological impacts,'' Carlson wrote.
In the McCullen case, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether the legality of Massachusetts' selective-exclusion law, which makes it a crime for speakers, other than clinic employees, enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk within a 35-feet buffer zone of a reproductive health-care facility under the First Amendment.
In the panhandling lawsuit, the ACLU of Massachusetts with Goodwin Proctor LLP of Boston filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of three homeless men -- Randy Copley, Kenneth McLaughlin and Joshua Wood -- challenging the city's ban on panhandling within 400 acres of the historic downtown because it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
The ACLU argues the Lowell ordinance, passed in November and amended in February to target "aggressive panhandling," discriminates against the homeless and that Lowell city councilors "wanted to ban panhandling to remove the homeless from Lowell."
The city counters there was no nefarious intent. Rather, it was intended to stop an issue that was having a negative impact on the city and its tourists. But there have been no arrests for panhandling since the ordinance was enacted.
Carlson asked Woodlock not grant the ACLU's motion for a preliminary injunction or permanent injunction against the city unless city officials have time to present additional evidence.
Among that evidence is the Lowell City Council's motivations in adopting and amending the ordinance to ban aggressive panhandling, providing Woodlock with the statistics regarding panhandling in the city, and testimony from the public "as to the problems encountered in connection with solicitation,'' Carlson wrote.
Carlson has indicated that aggressive panhandling involves people following and accosting people, especially tourists, for money.
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