A report by the Seattle Human Rights Commission—a board tasked by city law to advise the city council and mayor on policy—takes a sharp jab at a bill targeting aggressive solicitation by challenging facts presented to justify the measure. By addressing "findings" in the proposed ordinance, the report shows that data don't support the substance of the bill. (The 15-page report is here.)
Maybe this will clear up some of confusion on the part of bill sponsor City Council Member Tim Burgess. When I spoke to Burgess last week, after the city's Human Right's Commission voted nine-to-one to oppose his aggressive solicitation bill, he said the commission "misunderstands the ordinance."
Burgess also said he's "mystified by the due-process concerns" raised by the commission.
Well, Burgess doesn't need to be "mystified" by the commission's thinking any more. The report went online this afternoon outlining its position very clearly. And—ahem—the panel of attorneys and policy experts don't seem to "misunderstand" the bill at all.
The commission details how the bill could create troublesome issues with due process—that the poor and homeless people fined $50 for asking for money are less likely to pay or be able to appear in court, have no right to legal counsel for an infraction, and failing to show up or pay the fine results in a criminal charge and bench warrant—before going on to make a bigger case.
The commission understand the bill so well that the vast majority of the report is dedicated to dismantling the premise of the bill. In his proposed ordinance, Burgess claims that aggressive solicitation is a serious public safety problem that has increased markedly, which residents do not believe has been addressed, resulting in a negative economic impact on the city.
The commissioners tear Burgess's argument to ribbons. They point out that surveys used forced questions to elicit one of a set of predetermined answers, that residents actually saw an improvement in panhandling problems instead of the worsening that the bill describes, and, again and again, that there is no data to back up the claims in the bill. (To reiterate, check out the report.)
Here, the commission appears to be a few steps ahead of Burgess. This report could be the basis of a lawsuit. As I understand it (although I'm not an attorney), the government must have a compelling interest in restricting free speech, and it must write the most narrow regulation possible to restrict the time, place, and manner of the speech. This report—by arguing that the premise for bill conflicts with the data—makes the case that the city has no compelling interest.
Burgess, perhaps also smelling a lawsuit, whipped out five affidavits today by various people, testifying for the need for the bill, but did not present or mention the commission's report. By introducing the affidavits into the record at the Public Safety and Education committee meeting today—where the committee forwarded the bill to the full council—Burgess appears to be attempting to build a body of evidence that shows we need the bill. Unfortunately, the affidavits largely cite fear of crimes that, again, wouldn't be addressed by the measure, opening them up to the same sort of criticism as Burgess's half-baked bill.