East Hawaii News

County Settles, Modifies Code in Free Speech Case

September 14, 2015, 12:51 PM HST
* Updated September 14, 12:55 PM
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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.”

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“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.”

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Hawai’i County has repealed multiple Code provisions as part of the settlement, including: 14-74, 14-75, 15-9, 15-20, 15-21, 15-35, and 15-37, which criminalizes solicitation and begging.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.

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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.

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