New Ordinance May Violate First Amendment-Protected Expression of Charity
A few weeks ago, the City of El Cajon adopted an ordinance prohibiting people and organizations from sharing food with homeless individuals on public property. This needlessly cruel ordinance dampens the spirit of giving this holiday season. It may also be unconstitutional.
On Friday, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties sent a letter to the City of El Cajon requesting reconsideration of its food sharing ban.
“By prohibiting food sharing only when done for ‘charitable purposes,’ El Cajon is regulating food sharing because of its expressive content, punishing only those who share food to express their religious or political beliefs in ministry or charity but not those who share food for other purposes,” said David Loy, Legal Director for the ACLU of San Diego. “If charitable appeals for funds are within the protection of the First Amendment, the same is true for charitable giving, whether of money or food.”
The City of El Cajon adopted the ordinance after San Diego County’s public health officer declared a local public health emergency on Sept. 1, 2017, due to an outbreak of the Hepatitis A virus.
Banning food sharing for charitable purposes will not mitigate the public health emergency and neither will infringing on the constitutional rights of benevolent El Cajon residents and visitors. What the ordinance does is deny food to people who may otherwise go hungry.
Loy added: “Assuming the City’s interests are unrelated to the suppression of free expression, the ordinance is still problematic even if treated as content-neutral because it’s not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest. The City has other alternative tools to achieve the same goals through the adoption or enforcement of other laws at its disposal that would protect public health without prohibiting charitable food sharing on municipal land.”
In keeping with the spirit of the season and the principles of the U.S. Constitution, we urge El Cajon to quickly reconsider this ordinance.