Myrtle Beach officials seem surprised that what City Council believes will broaden First Amendment rights is being heavily scrutinized.
A proposed ordinance that passed first reading last week would relax some of the restrictions in what has been a solicitation-free zone.
“Probably 90 percent of what’s in the ordinance already is in city code today,” said Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea. “What is new is that, if passed, the city will allow non-commercial solicitation and hand billing on the public rights-of-way, subject to certain safety precautions, in what previously had been a solicitation-free zone, from 13th Avenue South to 21st Avenue North, east of Kings Highway. That’s new territory.”
The catch is that in order to panhandle or beg (or whatever term you use for what homeless people do), you’d first have to secure a license, one that can only be had after the person presents a photo ID and clears a local warrants check.
If the proposal becomes law on second reading, scheduled for Aug. 28, that requirement would apply to us all, meaning that if you stop a stranger to ask for $5 after running out of gas, you would be subject to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
“Technically, if you’re asking someone for money, regardless of the reason, then, yes, you’d need a permit under this proposal,” Kruea said. “This ordinance was not presented merely to create the permit. … Instead, it was presented to bring our existing laws in line with recent court rulings regarding religious speech and other non-commercial speech in traditional public places and to group together other existing laws regarding public property and rights-of-way in one convenient place.”
The license is designed to protect the public against aggressive panhandling.
That seems reasonable, except that there are laws on the books that address that already. And there’s no proof aggressive begging has become a major problem recently.
That’s why it feels as though it is just a way to give police another tool with which to hide our homeless from visitors.
Mayor John Rhodes told The Sun News reporter Maya T. Prabhu this:
“I think we need to need to use this to make a statement that we’re going to become a little … stricter on the nuisance of [begging]. We’re not like other cities. Our livelihood is tourism. If we don’t take care of our tourists, if we don’t protect our tourists, we’ll be out of [business.]”
The city is trying to better deal with the homeless, efforts that stem back to when I began writing about the issue in 1998 when the soup kitchen opened on what is now Joe White Avenue.
Given that track record, no one should accuse the city of cruelty. It is trying to balance what it believes is a legitimate issue with free speech rights.
I still don’t get why I should have to get approval from the city to ask someone for a dollar. That person has the right to ignore me or file a complaint of harassment, even if the new provision is not adopted.
Horry County Council is grappling with the right balance of public safety and individual rights as well. But in that case, there is a documented problem.
There have been at least 70 strikes of green lasers on aircraft landing at Myrtle Beach International Airport since May – the most in the nation, said the U.S, Coast Guard.
People have used the lasers they buy in area stores to force aircraft to abort rescues and make other in-flight changes.
Something has to be done; it’s just a matter of what.
There has been no corresponding, documented case that aggressive panhandlers are harming residents or scaring off tourists. The tourism industry has seen increases in dollars and visitors the past couple of years.
Elected officials have tough choices when trying to determine when an individual’s freedom must be curtailed for the greater good of the public.
But when they decide to, they must prove that it is necessary.
Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at 626-0357, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.com @ijbailey or @TSN_IssacBailey.