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Are some more equal in Manteca than others?

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POSTED July 3, 2010 4:24 a.m.

Eight years ago this Sunday a new municipal law went into effect to try to stem aggressive panhandlers.

They were approaching people at the exits and entrances to parking lots, as they were waiting at traffic signals at freeway off ramps, and accosting them as they entered banks.

One of the worst intersections for panhandlers was Mission Ridge Drive and South Main Street.

It’s ironic given that last month the Manteca Firefighters Association used that same intersection to solicit donations by “Filling the Boot” for Jerry’s Kids of Muscular Dystrophy fame. It is noble what the firefighters did on their day off. One can’t dispute the sincere community-minded efforts of the firefighter group throughout the year.

When the City Council outlawed  all forms of “aggressive solicitation” back in 2002 it was made clear that it was prohibiting solicitation within 100 feet of any signalized intersection, within 15 feet of banks and ATMS, and in public parking lots after dark. It also specifically bans the approaching of a motor vehicle for solicitation when the vehicle is in a public place such as a roadway.

The ordinance essentially outlaws aggressive solicitation anywhere in Manteca but still allows for solicitation on private property with the permission of the owners or tenants.

That means groups such as Manteca Youth Soccer League, Salvation Army, Girl Scouts and other such groups can solicit funds outside of places such as supermarkets providing they have obtained permission from the property owner or tenant.

It was made clear back in 2002 that the law would make it illegal for a group such as firefighters associations to solicit funds within 100 feet of signalized intersections as well. Then Police Chief Charlie Halford, after researching court decisions and other cities’ ordinances, noted that any effort to make an exception for any of the rules would be “regulating free speech and not the activity” which is where anti-solicitation ordinances have run afoul with appeal courts. The Manteca ordinance was modeled after a Los Angeles law that has withstood a challenge in the California Supreme Court.

Now the council is being asked to give the police chief the power to grant permits to non-profits as he sees fit so they can solicit within 100 feet of signalized intersections. It should be noted, by the way, the firefighters aren’t the only ones violating the 100-foot rule for soliciting near signalized intersections. Any time someone waves a sign for a car wash at traffic signals they are violating the law. There is also a question whether businesses hiring people to hold or juggle signs within 100 feet of signalized intersections are also soliciting since they are trying to entice people to give their employers money.

Granted, the former police chief’s research may have been faulty eight years ago as well as the legal opinion obtained from municipal counsel as they assist in drafting city ordinances. It should be kept in mind, though that the council was advised to adopt the ordinance in the manner they did so as not to run afoul with free speech.

The courts have defined soliciting as a form of protected speech whether it is by a non-profit, vagrant or even a con artist. We may not like it but it is the law of the land. Most of us probably also don’t like the idea of vagrants panhandling and probably have warm feelings about what we define as worthwhile groups doing what is essentially the same thing.

There is a different council sitting twice a month at 1001 W. Center St. developing municipal policies as opposed to eight years ago. It should be noted that two members - John Harris and Willie Weatherford - were part of the unanimous council back in 2002 that approved the ordinance.

As much as you and I may be tempted to support the proposed exception to the Manteca ordinance controlling aggressive solicitation it is simply wrong to do so. The courts have made it clear it is all or none. If we participate in deliberately diluting the constitutional rights of one group simply because the majority doesn’t approve of what they do while elevating those same rights by giving a preferred class the opportunity to gain permits from the government to exercise the freedom still universally denied the minority then we are mocking the very principles that prompted Americans to rise up against King George 234 years ago.



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