Saying they have been punished just for asking for help, two men are suing state and local officials after being repeatedly ticketed and prosecuted for panhandling in suburban Downers Grove.

The ACLU of Illinois, the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), and the law firm of Schiff Hardin allege violations of the men’s First Amendment rights in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Michael Dumiak and Christopher Simmons have been harassed, ticketed, and prosecuted by local authorities when the men stood on a raised median strip seeking donations from people in vehicles stopped at the intersection of Butterfield and Finley roads. They have not caused safety or traffic problems. Firefighters and others use that median in the same manner to raise money for charitable organizations, but they are not ticketed or prosecuted.  

“All I want to do is to ask for help when I need it. I’m not blocking traffic or putting myself at risk – I’m just holding a cardboard sign. If other people and organizations can do it, I should be able to as well,” said Mr. Dumiak.

Mr. Dumiak and Mr. Simmons have been charged under an Illinois statute that makes it a misdemeanor to stand on a median to solicit contributions, employment, business, or rides from passing vehicles. The statute does not prohibit other interactions with drivers and passengers, such as gathering petition signatures or distributing leaflets. It allows municipalities to exempt certain charities from the law, even as local police enforce it against individuals who ask for money for their own use.

A Downers Grove ordinance similarly prohibits standing on a median strip to solicit funds from vehicles, but expressly exempts some charitable solicitation. 

The case comes after the ACLU and CCH sent letters to 19 municipalities in the past year to warn that their panhandling ordinances are unconstitutional. 

A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it clear that most laws targeting panhandlers are unconstitutional. Although the case (Reed v. Town of Gilbert) was not about panhandling, the Supreme Court clarified that government regulation of speech based on its subject matter or purpose is almost always unconstitutional. SinceReedwas decided, panhandling ordinances across the nation have been repealed or struck down by courts.  To date, ten Illinois municipalities, including Chicago and Oak Park, have repealed their panhandling ordinances after receiving letters from the ACLU and CCH.

“By choosing to ban only certain topics of speech, the state of Illinois and Downers Grove are unjustly targeting people who need help making ends meet. We are calling on the court to put a stop to this wrongful enforcement,”” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Amy Meek.

“Our clients in this case are just two of many homeless people across Illinois who have been targeted by these inhumane and unconstitutional laws. We hope to stop Downers Grove from unjustly criminalizing their speech and affirm that everyone has the right to ask for help,” said CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Illinois. A copy of the complaint can be read here.