Begging in public is protected speech in Michigan

Posted by & filed under Civil Rights, Criminal Law.

Speet, et al. v. Schuette     No. 12-2213

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This case involved the Michigan “disorderly persons” statute which makes it a crime to be found begging in a public place. MCL 750.167(1)(h)

The Grand Rapids Police Department has produced four hundred and nine incident reports related to its enforcement of the Michigan anti-begging statute. In this case, two of these men sued for injunctive relief and claimed that the law was facially invalid because it was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The Sixth Circuit explained, “in a facial challenge, a plaintiff must show substantial overbreadth: that the statute prohibits ‘a substantial amount of protected speech both in an absolute sense and relative to [the statute’s] plainly legitimate sweep[.]’”

Further, a facial challenge based on substantial overbreadth “describe[s] a challenge to a statute that in all its applications directly restricts protected First Amendment activity and does not employ means narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.”

To succeed in an overbreadth challenge, therefore, a plaintiff must “demonstrate from the text of [the statute] and from actual fact that a substantial number of instances exist in which the [statute] cannot be applied constitutionally.”

The Sixth Circuit noted that the United States Supreme Court has not directly decided the question of whether the First Amendment protects soliciting alms when done by an individual. However, the Supreme Court has held—repeatedly—that the First Amendment protects charitable solicitation performed by organizations.

In addition, the Court agreed with other Courts of Appeal that charitable appeals for funds, on the street or door to door, involve a variety of speech interests—communication of information, the dissemination and propagation of views and ideas, and the advocacy of causes—that are within the protection of the First Amendment.”

The Court also agreed with the Seventh Circuit when they wrote, “like organized charities, [the panhandlers’] messages cannot always be easily separated from their need for money,” and “[there is] little reason to distinguish between beggars and charities in terms of the First Amendment protection for their speech.”

After comparing beggars to charitable organizations which solicit funds, the Court held that “begging, or the soliciting of alms, is a form of solicitation that the First Amendment protects.”


Having determined that begging is constitutionally protected speech, the Sixth Circuit then needed to decide whether Michigan’s anti-begging statute is “substantially overbroad.” For the Court to determine whether the statute is substantially overbroad, a plaintiff must demonstrate from the text of the statute and from actual fact that a substantial number of instances exist in which the law cannot be applied constitutionally.

Here, the Court stated, “Instead of a few instances of alleged unconstitutional applications, we have hundreds. The Grand Rapids Police Department produced four hundred nine incident reports related to its enforcement of the anti-begging statute.” The Court also found that, “if left on the books, the statute would chill a substantial amount of activity protected by the First Amendment.”

In a message to Michigan lawmakers, the Court noted that “Michigan may regulate begging.” But Michigan must regulate begging with ‘due regard for the reality that solicitation is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political, or social issues.”

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