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Sharing Food With Homeless People Is Protected by 1st Amendment, Court Rules

sandwiches for sharing in a picnic
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 28, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Normally, you'd consider a charitable act, like giving food to people who can't afford to eat, something to be praised instead of punished. But you're not Florida.

Pastors, activists, and volunteers have been getting arrested in the Sunshine State for years, for simply feeding the homeless. Or, more specifically, they were arrested for violating city ordinances which impose restrictions on hours of operation and requirements regarding food handling and safety for "social service facilities," which can include setting up tables in a public park and sharing food. But a federal court just ruled that one charity's outdoor food sharing is in fact expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.

Public Provisions

Non-profit Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs hosts weekly food sharing events at a public park in Fort Lauderdale. The organization sets up a table and banner with its name and emblem in the park and invites passersby to join them in sitting down and enjoying vegetarian or vegan food. According to Food Not Bombs, "Providing food in a visible public space, and partaking in meals that are shared with others, is an act of political solidarity meant to convey the organization's message."

These activities were also allegedly in violation of Fort Lauderdale's City Ordinance C-14-42, which defined "social services" as, among other things, "the provision of food," and an "outdoor food distribution center" as:

[a]ny location or site temporarily used to furnish meals to members of the public without cost or at a very low cost as a social service as defined herein. A food distribution center shall not be considered a restaurant.

And such social services and outdoor food distribution is subject to permitting, restrictions on hours of operation, and requirements regarding food handling and safety.

"To Feed Were Best at Home; From Thence, the Sauce to Meat Is Ceremony. Meeting Bare Without It."

Noting that constitutional protection for freedom of speech "does not end at the spoken
or written word," and quoting from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" in the opening paragraph, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that "the presence of banners, a table, and a gathering of people sharing food with all those present in a public park is sufficiently expressive" to warrant First Amendment protection. "The reasonable observer at FLFNB's events would infer some sort of message, e.g., one of community and care for all citizens."

While the court ruled that Food Not Bombs "engaged in a form of protected expression," it left the issues of whether the city's ordinance violates the First Amendment or is unconstitutionally vague up to a lower court to decide. For now, however, it appears that feeding the homeless, as long as it is accompanied with some sort of message, constitutes free speech protected by the First Amendment.

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