If you thought that the panhandling epidemic that is sweeping the nation erupted almost overnight, you are right.  But, it was unintended.

In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Reed v. The Town Of Gilbert, Arizona.  In that case the Justices determined that government regulations on free speech must fulfill a "compelling government interest" and that those regulations must be as narrow as possible.   Governing.com says the case involved a church that was using temporary signs, in violation of the town's ordinance on signage, to promote Sunday church services.

In striking down Gilbert's sign ordinance the SCOTUS inadvertently cleared the way for panhandlers to use signage to solicit donations when and where they choose.

Governing.com says the ACLU and similar groups seized upon the ruling to defend their long held belief that begging for cash is free speech.  They challenged panhandling bans across the country and in each case federal appeals courts sided with the ACLU based upon Reed v. The Town Of Gilbert, Arizona.   Among the ordnances struck down by the courts, laws in Lowell and Worcester, Massachusetts.

While the SCOTUS ruling certainly protects the right of the church to advertise it's services where it when it wants to, it has raised new questions about the intent of the First Amendment and whether soliciting donations on street corners and highway medians in an aggressive or non-aggressive manner is protected free speech or whether communities have a right to regulate or ban begging in public places.

Because of the extent of concern from coast to coast and due to the unintentional confusion that has resulted from the Reed v. The Town Of Gilbert, Arizona decision, the U.S. Supreme Court needs to clarify the matter once and for all.  That can only be done by litigation at the lower court level first and that means local communities need to stand their ground against powerful groups such as the ACLU.

One thing is for certain, posting signs at popular begging locations in an effort to persuade people not to give to the panhandlers, as the New Bedford City Council is considering, will not be successful in driving the panhandlers away.  Where it has been tried it has failed.

Editor's Note: Barry Richard is the afternoon host on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from Noon-3pm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.