Judge: Panhandler can sue security firm

CHICAGO – A panhandler can sue a private security firm for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights by stopping him from begging in a public square in downtown Chicago, a federal judge ruled this week.

Free-speech cases often involve overstepping by government, but Securitas Security Services guards acted as government surrogates and thus could be held liable, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer found.

Kim Pindak’s lawsuit, initially filed in 2010, alleges that Securitas enforces an unwritten “blanket prohibition on peaceful panhandling” at Daley Plaza, a popular tourist destination with its giant Pablo Picasso sculpture.

City law prohibits aggressive panhandling, including unwanted touching, following people and using abusive language. But it does allow passively asking for donations in public places, which Pindak says he was doing.

Pindak says that on at least one occasion, Securitas guards threatened to handcuff him and told him falsely that panhandling is prohibited in the plaza.

In her 16-page ruling, released late Monday, Pallmeyer said Securitas guards “were regulating his speech when they interfered with his peaceful panhandling” and weren’t coping with any threat.

Securitas spokeswoman Lynne Glovka said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Pindak’s attorney welcomed the ruling, saying courts already established panhandling is protected speech.

“You can yell anti-Obama rhetoric on a street, and you can ask people if they can spare a quarter,” Mark Weinberg said.

Authorities, however, continue targeting panhandlers, he alleged.

“The political benefits of getting rid of panhandlers are so much greater than the benefits of protecting panhandlers’ rights,” he said. “It’s the politically popular thing to do.”

Pallmeyer also let Pindak continue his lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, saying there’s evidence the county has “a widespread practice of prohibiting panhandling.”

Department spokesman Frank Bilecki said he couldn’t comment on unresolved cases.

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