Panhandling & Free Expression

Many local officials tend to believe that panhandlers are detrimental to local businesses and tourism and, as such, it is no surprise that there have been many efforts to ban begging. While local governments keep trying to craft laws to pass constitutional muster, their efforts have generally proven futile in the face of the First Amendment. While the legal questions are addressed by courts, there remains the moral question of whether the banning of panhandling can be morally justified.

The obvious starting point for a moral argument for banning panhandling is a utilitarian approach. As noted above, local officials generally want to have such bans because they believe panhandlers can be bad for local businesses and tourism in general. For example, if potential customers are accosted by scruffy and unwashed panhandlers on the streets around businesses, then they are less likely to patronize those businesses. As another example, if a city gets a reputation for being awash in beggars who annoy tourists with their pleas for cash, then tourism is likely to decline. From the perspective of the business owners and the local officials, these effects would have negative value that would outweigh the benefits to the panhandlers of being able to ask for money. There is presumably also utility in encouraging panhandlers to move away to other locations, thus removing the financial and social cost of having panhandlers. If this utilitarian calculation is accurate, then banning panhandling would be morally acceptable. Of course, if the calculation is not correct and such a ban would do more harm than good, then the ban would be morally wrong.

A second utilitarian argument is the safety argument. While panhandlers generally do not engage in violence (they, after all, are asking for money and not trying to rob people), it has been claimed that they do present a safety risk. The standard concern is that by panhandling in or near traffic, they put themselves and others in danger. If this is true, then banning panhandling would be the right thing to do.  If, however, the alleged harm does not justify the ban, then it would be morally unacceptable.

There is also the obvious reply that any safety concerns could be addressed by having laws that forbid people from obstructing the flow of traffic and being a danger to themselves and others. Presumably many such laws exist in various localities. There is also the concern that the safety argument would need to be applied consistently to all such allegedly risky behavior around traffic, such as people engaging in political campaigns or street side advertising.

It is also easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of panhandling that is based on the harm that could be done by restricting the panhandlers’ freedom of expression and activity. Following Mill’s classic argument, as long as panhandlers are not harming people with their panhandling, then it would be wrong to limit their freedom to engage in this behavior. This is on the condition that the panhandling is, at worst, merely annoying and does not involve threatening behavior or harassment.

It could be objected that panhandling does cause harm—as noted above, the presence of panhandlers could harm local businesses. People can also regard panhandling as an infringement on their freedom to not be bothered in public. While this does have some appeal, this justification of a panhandling ban would also justify banning any public behavior people found annoying or that had some perceived impact on local businesses. This could include public displays of expression, political campaigning, preaching in public and many other behaviors that should not be banned. In short, the problem is that there is not something distinct enough to panhandling that would allow it to be banned without also justifying the ban of other activities. To simply ban it because it is panhandling would seem to solve this problem, but would not. After all, if an activity can be justly banned because it is that activity, then this would apply to any activity. After all, every activity is the activity it is.

Those who prefer an alternative to utilitarian calculations can easily defend panhandling against proposed bans by appealing to a right of free expression and behavior that is not based on utility. If people do have the moral right to free expression, then reasons would need to be advanced that would be strong enough to warrant violating this right. As noted above, an appeal could be made to the rights of businesses and the rights of other people to avoid being annoyed. However, the right to not be annoyed does not seem to trump the right of expression until the annoyance becomes significant. As such, a panhandler does have the right to annoy a person by asking for money, but if it crosses over into actual harassment, then this would be handled by the fact that people do not have a right to harassment.

In the case of businesses, while they do have a right to engage in free commerce, they do not have a right to expect people to behave in ways that are conducive to their business. If, for example, people found it offensive to have runners running downtown and decided to take their business elsewhere, this would not warrant a runner ban. But, if runners were blocking access to the businesses by running around the entrances, then the owners’ rights would be being violated. Likewise, if panhandlers are disliked by people and they decide to take their business elsewhere, this does not violate the rights of the businesses. But, if panhandlers started harassing people and blocking access to the businesses, then this would violate the rights of the owners.



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  1. Karen Lankford

    One significant difference between panhandling and other forms of free expression is that panhandling is an economic activity. Street peddlers typically must obtain licenses and are restricted from selling items directly in front of property tax paying businesses. Panhandles are not regulated. It could be argued that panhandlers are competing with local businesses for customer’s dollars. While this argument would not permit a complete ban on panhandling, it might justify restricting panhandling locations. If people give their money to panhandles or stay away from shopping districts because of them, the city could lose vital tax revenue to provide necessary city services.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    In more open, large area cities panhandlers are predominately at street corners where population flux, i.e. automobiles, tends to be high. Commerce is so spread out in suburbs panhandling becomes inefficient. Likewise affluent neighborhoods which have less density and tend towards geographically niche positions rarely see panhandlers.

    It might be interesting to think about where panhandlers are almost certainly never going to be found and consider what qualities of that portion of society can be replicated in other patches of society where panhandlers are almost certainly found.

  3. That is an interesting approach to the problem. The counter would probably be that the panhandlers are not offering a service or product, they are merely asking for money. But, as you said, the involvement of money could be used to contend that it is still an economic activity and thus subject to business regulation.

  4. Panhandlers who intrude into wealthy neighborhoods presumably are dealt with by the police at the behest of the wealthy. I’ve been hassled by the police for merely running through wealthy areas on “public” roads, so I can imagine what a panhandler would experience. Or perhaps they have a harder time reaching the affluent areas relative to city centers.

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