Psssst! Can You Sneak Me a Light?

If you ask a fellow smoker for a light in Cincinnati, you can get a ticket from the police. No, this doesn't have anything to do with the new smoking ban in Ohio; the problem is the city's panha

Feb 14, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Natalie Hager

It's taken four years, but city council seems ready to join David Crowley against the war.

If you ask a fellow smoker for a light in Cincinnati, you can get a ticket from the police. No, this doesn't have anything to do with the new smoking ban in Ohio; the problem is the city's panhandling laws.

The ordinance is written so broadly that asking for anything, not just money, can be interpreted as panhandling. Asking for a light or a spare dollar while too close to an ATM or during the wrong hours, without a panhandling license, is illegal in Cincinnati, according to Jeff Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio.

"I'm reasonably sure the intent of the city council was not to say that's it's illegal to ask somebody for a match when you're standing in the wrong spot," he says. "I've got to assume that wasn't what they had in mind. But what they wrote encompasses that, and that's a consistent First Amendment problem when you try to limit speech — aside from the question of should you be in the business of trying to limit speech anyhow. When you try to limit it, you tend to do is get into these slippery slopes, where what you've done is you limited far more than you intended to."

Lawyers for the ACLU and the city go before U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott for a pretrial conference Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance. The ACLU represents multiple plaintiffs.

"These laws are invariably broader than they intend to be, and Cincinnati's is not the only one," Gamso says. "It would be unconstitutional even if it was as narrowly targeted as they intended it to be. In fact, it sweeps in all kinds of protected speech."

Another provision of the law has already been found unconstitutional.

"Coincidentally, two weeks ago ... a decision from the Hamilton County Court of Appeals, First Appellate Court, in a criminal case against somebody who was charged with ... panhandling without a license, the court said the licensing provisions are unconstitutional," Gamso says. "The licensing provisions do not provide a speedy — but with time limits — appeals if you're denied a license or if your license is yanked or whatever. Can that be fixed? Sure, I suppose it can be fixed. They can put in, 'If you're denied, a decision will be made in two weeks.' And that will maybe be a fix. But for the moment, that provision of the law has been thrown out, too."

Bringing the War Home
Can city council muster the political will to take a stand on President Bush's plans to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq — and should it even weigh in on the issue at all? Councilman David Crowley, a Democrat who is a U.S. Navy veteran, introduced a resolution before the Finance Committee Feb. 12 opposing the escalation of the war. After nearly an hour of rancorous debate, the committee voted 5-3 to recommend approval. Dozens of spectators filled council chambers, many holding signs saying, "Stop the escalation." The full city council is scheduled to vote Wednesday. About 250 cities nationwide have passed similar resolutions.

Besides Crowley, members who supported the resolution at the committee level included Democrats Laketa Cole, John Cranley and Cecil Thomas, along with Charterite Jim Tarbell. Opposed were Democrat Jeff Berding, Republican Leslie Ghiz and Charterite Chris Bortz.

It's appropriate to introduce the resolution in the Finance Committee because, in addition to the war's high cost in human lives, it's also depleting resources that could benefit cities such as Cincinnati, Crowley said. Since the war began, the city's grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has decreased by $6.2 million a year while Congress has appropriated more than $250 billion for operations in Iraq.

"This is an issue that this council should become involved in because it directly impacts this city," Crowley said.

Opponents, however, said council had no business spending time on matters involving national and international affairs.

"I cannot begin to understand the rationale behind addressing a federal policy prior to taking care of our own business," Ghiz said. "We stand today with a $1 million bill in our hands for our police officers' salaries, yet we are wasting time stating our opinion on the war in Iraq."

Resolution supporters countered that city council can and should be able to handle both matters in a timely manner.

This isn't the first time Crowley has tried to make local officials speak out against the Iraq War. He introduced a resolution in February 2003, a month before the U.S, invasion, but he couldn't muster enough votes to ensure passage, so he dropped the matter.

For more analysis of council's debate on the war and the latest delay in building The Banks, visit CityBeat's Porkopolis blog at

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