Stossel: Panhandling vs. Free Speech

In Chicago a few years ago, it was illegal for panhandlers to ask people on the street for money. Then a lawyer sued the city, saying that a ban on begging is unconstitutional because asking for money is a form of free speech.

"You can spout Nazi hatred on a corner, you should be allowed to say, "Hey buddy can you spare a quarter?' " explained lawyer Mark Weinberg.

I agree. And during the holidays many charities stand on the street asking for money, but should there be a line? Panhandling can be threatening.

In the 1990s, in my hometown, New York City, people frequently asked for money while washing car windshields (whether you wanted them to or not).

Mayor Rudy Giuliani had the window washers arrested. When I confronted him about it, he said, "This is not generally as benign an activity as people sort of romantically think it is ... The needy person might, when you [offer money], put a knife in you, then you've got to sort of take a different look at it."

I was skeptical, but Giuliani's actions were popular in New York, and the city did become safer after he cracked down on petty crimes like aggressive panhandling.

Right to Say 'No'?

In Chicago, Weinberg succeeded in changing the no-begging law. Once the city was faced with a lawsuit, it repealed its ban. But this isn't necessarily a great thing for the majority of people in Chicago.

After the ban was repealed, panhandlers started lurking outside some outdoor fast food stands. They'd wait right behind customers on line buying food and ask for cash, as the hungry shoppers get their money out to pay. Other beggars will follow you asking for money -- sometimes for an entire block. We saw one woman nervously clutching her purse as a panhandler pursued her.

Weinberg says it's OK for panhandlers to ask multiple times. "They can ask repeatedly the same way that a politician can ask you to vote for him repeatedly when he's trying to shake your hand," said Weinberg.

Settlement Means Money for Lawyers

After repealing the law, Chicago offered the panhandlers clothing (long underwear, socks and hats) to settle the lawsuit, but not money. Weinberg called that offer unacceptable, which led to two more years of expensive legal work. In the end, the panhandlers received up to $450 each, but their lawyers got $375,000.

I asked Weinberg what the city of Chicago got out of that.

"I actually think my lawsuit is a really great example of the system working," Weinberg replied. "Nobody's getting rich on this."

The beggars sure aren't, and neither are Chicago's taxpayers. Give me a break.

This is an update to a story "20/20" originally broadcast Jan. 16, 2004.