LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that a Lexington law against panhandling is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

The landmark ruling  - which could affect similar laws across the state - stems from the case of Dennis Champion, who was jailed in 2015 for violating a Fayette County ordinance prohibiting “begging and soliciting upon public streets.”

Champion, according to court documents, was caught standing at an intersection holding a sign that read “begging for alms” in December 2014.

On Thursday, the high court ordered the case be dismissed because the law “unconstitutionally abridges freedom of speech under the First Amendment.”

“Despite the societal stigma associated with panhandling, this form of expression is widely considered to be constitutionally protected speech,” the high court ruled in a unanimous decision. “… Freedom of speech does not exist for us to talk about the weather; to accept this liberty is to welcome controversy and to embrace discomfort.”

In Fayette County, as in Jefferson and other counties in Kentucky, it is illegal to panhandle on public streets, with a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and a $100 fine.

In Jefferson County, people can be fined up to $250 and jailed for up to 90 days for panhandling.

In 2015, Champion pleaded guilty -- while reserving his right to appeal -- and sentenced to three days in jail, a conviction that was upheld in Fayette Circuit Court, which ruled against his attorney’s First Amendment argument.

As part of the city’s argument, Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts argued that intersections and public streets are not a typical public forum – and are a danger if they become one.

“The intersection of two streets in downtown Lexington is not normally a place where pedestrians and motorists mingle, chat, exchange ideas, engage in commerce, or discuss religion and politics,” Roberts wrote.

Justices ruled that “all forms of speech remain legal” on public streets, pointing out that someone holding a sign reading “Jesus loves you” at an intersection has “no fear of criminal liability under Lexington’s ordinance. But someone asking for money can be convicted of a crime.

“The only thing distinguishing these two people is the content of their messages,” the court ruled.

In addition, the high court said Lexington officials had shown no evidence that panhandlers have caused traffic delays or accidents due to asking for money.

“Just because public safety is recognized as a compelling government interest does not empower the government to enact any measure or target particularized behavior in its name without justification.”

The city could, however, prohibit all people from approaching motorists, promoting public safety without targeting one group of individuals.

A Jefferson District Court judge last year ruled Louisville's panhandling law unconstitutional, but the order is only for his court. 

Josh Abner, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney's office, said they were reviewing the Supreme Court ruling. The office did not challenge the local case striking down the panhandling law, instead waiting for guidance from the Supreme Court, Abner said. 

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