The Civil Rights of Panhandlers

September 07, 1994|By GREGORY P. KANE

Is there a right so silly that the American Civil Liberties Union won't defend it?

Apparently not. U.S. District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin ruled last month that Baltimore's ordinance against aggressive panhandling violated the Constitution. It unfairly singled out the homeless, the good judge reasoned. Local ACLU lawyers reacted as if the ruling were the second coming of the First Amendment free-speech guarantee.

Before Judge Smalkin and civil libertarians get too ecstatic, perhaps someone should point out what the law did. It actually protected panhandlers -- from themselves, mainly.

In July of 1993, a panhandler named Benjamin Chapman Jr. was stabbed to death in front of tourists in downtown Baltimore. He asked someone for money, got turned down, and, according to witnesses, stupidly and recklessly made some nasty remark in protest. He took a knife in the chest for his trouble.

For civil libertarians, Mr. Chapman was simply exercising his right to free speech. I say he was engaging in sheer idiocy. Those of us who walk Baltimore's streets on a regular basis know we can't say anything to anyone at any time we please. To do so courts disaster. We realize that having a right to free speech and knowing when and where to use it are two entirely different matters.

Panhandlers, on the other hand, seem incapable of making that distinction. Months before Mr. Chapman's death, I predicted that such an ugly incident would occur. Panhandlers were no longer taking ''no'' as an answer to requests for money. They were getting surly, bilious, argumentative. They were acting, in short, as though they were entitled to our money.

Predictably, this attitude rubbed some people the wrong way. I saw several incidents in which panhandlers nearly came to blows with guys tired of the aggressive panhandling some people now regard as a right.

The reaction of what for lack of a better term I will call the panhandlee is understandable.

In my experience, the average panhandler is usually an able-bodied man, young, with no signs of physical impairment and in your face asking for money. The panhandlee asks the quite reasonable question, ''Why don't you have a job?'' The panhandler doesn't appreciate the question. And then the argument escalates.

To avoid the confrontation, some young black men have now taken to wearing T-shirts that boldly declare ''Don't ask me for s---!'' printed on the front. They may be accused of simply being callous, but I believe these young men may be on to something.

Young black men may be the most feared and reviled segment of society right now, but they are on to panhandlers, particularly those who are trying to use sympathy for the genuinely homeless as an excuse for begging. These young men know that most people have family and friends who will take them in or give them some money if they are truly in need. Those begging for money in the streets clearly have no such family and friends.

The question, of course, is why. The answer is because their families and friends know them. They know that the person cannot be trusted either to stay with them or to be given money. So panhandlers turn to complete strangers, whom they can con into believing that they're genuinely homeless, or that they're simply looking for a meal when in reality they are looking for the next hit of crack or scrounging up the price of some cheap booze.

The crack or the booze may be the reason the panhandler is on the street asking for handouts in the first place. Giving money only subsidizes the panhandlers' habits and feeds their illusion that they can simply abrogate responsibility for their own lives and shift it to the rest of us.

And it is responsibility, not free speech, that is the issue in the city's attempt to curb aggressive panhandling. It's a pity the Founding Fathers didn't come up with a Bill of Responsibilities to go along with the Bill of Rights. It might have saved us the sorry spectacle of seeing begging on the streets elevated to the same status as Patrick Henry's ''Give me liberty or give me death!'' speech or Martin Luther King's ''I have a dream'' speech.

For as Benjamin Chapman proved on the streets of Baltimore one year ago, free speech coming from the mouth of a damned fool can be dangerous.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore Sun reporter.

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