County Settles, Modifies Code in Free Speech Case
A lawsuit challenging Hawai’i County’s laws prohibiting individuals from holding signs asking for help has been settled.
The lawsuit originated from a June 3, 2014 incident where Plaintiff Justin Guy held a sign that said “Homeless Please Help” as he stood on Kaiwi Street in Kona. An officer with the Hawai’i Police Department cited Guy for violating Hawai’i County code 14-75, which prohibits solicitation in various areas throughout the county.
Although criminal charges were dismissed, a lawsuit to protect the constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights of individuals in Hawai’i County began.
A temporary restraining order against the county was entered by United States District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway in order to keep the county from interfering with Guy’s right to hold a sign by the side of the road.
County Code 14-75 ran into trouble as Judge Mollyway noted that “it is unclear why public safety cannot be addressed with less restriction that section 14-75.”
“The right of free speech applies with equal force to an unsheltered person asking for help as it does to a politician asking for votes. The government cannot suppress speech it does not like – the ability to freely express oneself is the heart of our democracy,” said Attorney Matthew Winter. “Today’s settlement is a victory for all residents of and visitors to Hawai’i County because it is a victory for the most fundamental of our civil liberties.”
Hawai’i County has repealed multiple Code provisions as part of the settlement, including: 14-74, 14-75, 15-9, 15-20, 15-21, 15-35, and 15-37, which criminalizes solicitation and begging. The county will also pay $80,000 in attorney’s fees, costs, and damages.
Code provision changes dealing with free speech and protests include:
Small groups (smaller than 75 people) no longer need a permit to hold free speech activities in county parks.
Larger groups (larger than 75 people) who want to hold free speech activities in county parks on short notice may do so without having to obtain a permit 20 days in advance. The group should instead notify the county of the planned demonstration.
“Offensive” speech, by itself, is no longer a crime unless the speech is “likely to provoke a violent response,” which is not protected by the First Amendment.
Solicitation of support and donations is no longer a crime.
“The County of Hawai’i should treat homeless people with dignity and recognize that we have constitutional rights – including the right to free speech – just like everyone else,” said Guy.