Chris Schulz Published

Lawsuit Claims Morgantown Panhandling Ordinance Unconstitutional

A view of downtown Morgantown is taken from inside of the West Virginia University astronomical observatory. Streets can be seen stretching away into frame around squat brick buildings. In the top right of frame can be seen a hint of the Monongahela River with the Morgantown Marriot tower in front. A white brick building with "Hotel Morgan" lettering can be seen in the middle background. A wooded ridge rises in the background, with houses dotting the hillside that slopes into downtown visible in the left background.Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A lawsuit filed in federal court Monday argues Morgantown’s ordinance against panhandling is unconstitutional. 

Legal nonprofit Mountain State Justice filed the suit in the Northern District of West Virginia on behalf of Anthony Rowand, who has been cited by police at least seven times in the past year for violating a city ordinance against soliciting donations from people traveling in vehicles.

Lesley Nash, staff attorney for Mountain State Justice, said they are arguing the city’s ordinance violates Rowand’s First Amendment rights. 

“There have been numerous cases from just about every Circuit Court of Appeals in the country, as well as the Supreme Court, that have held that it is unconstitutional to put content-based restrictions on speech,” she said. “Because this ordinance in Morgantown specifically targets speech that solicits charity, that is a content-based restriction on speech, and we believe it is facially unconstitutional.”

Nash said the ordinance was first passed in 2005, but was sparsely enforced prior to an increase of citations starting in the summer of 2023. In a press release, Mountain State Justice said a “homelessness crisis” has led to “government efforts to shame, drive out, and ticket, fine and arrest our neighbors for experiencing poverty and illness in public.”

“At its heart, this case is not about being unhoused or people who are affected by homelessness, it is about the First Amendment right to free speech,” Nash said. “Soliciting charity is an act of free speech.” 

Nash said the goal of the suit is to see the ordinance not be enforced and preferably removed from the books entirely. She said the court process could take several months, but the next step is for Morgantown to be formally notified of the suit and submit a response.