A proposal to toughen downtown Nashville’s rules against panhandling has taken a major turn. The area’s councilman has now moved instead to eliminate Metro’s fine on panhandlers.
Two months ago, Councilman Freddie O’Connell suggested more should be done to protect pedestrians from aggressive solicitations and leafletting. He said he was hearing from employees and residents struggling to walk freely on downtown sidewalks — being lunged at, intimidated and impeded.
But his proposal for a crackdown met swift blowback, and it raised a question about its constitutionality.
“I would love to figure out some way to reduce the incidences of that activity in downtown,” O’Connell told WPLN. “I’m just not convinced any longer that that bill as originally filed is going to do that.”
This week, he’s moving to delete Metro’s code pertaining to panhandling. That would eliminate the ability to issue a fine — which is rarely used, he said — while allowing police to continue making arrests in cases of actual harassment or assault.
O’Connell said community members and his own research led to his shift. He called the panhandling penalty “antithetical” to Metro’s overall approach to aiding people in need.
“We’re piling on another financial penalty … without actually improving public safety,” he said.
Meanwhile, a legal analysis for the Metro Council emphasized that courts have been striking down anti-panhandling ordinances on First Amendment grounds.
The councilman said he still wants to convene a community meeting to discuss how to improve pedestrian movement downtown, and how to regain a sense of safety there that he feels has eroded.