Appellate court rules group's activity helping feed homeless protected under First Amendment

District court to rule on constitutionality of Fort Lauderdale's feeding ban law

By Bob Norman - Investigative Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A lawsuit challenging Fort Lauderdale's controversial homeless feeding ban is back in court after a federal appellate court sided with a group of activists over the city.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said it's time for the city to help homeless people instead of fighting them.

When the City of Fort Lauderdale began arresting people feeding the homeless at Stranahan Park four years ago, the group Food Not Bombs argued the city's homeless feeding ban violated their right to protest. 

"We share food in protest of war and corporate greed, because our country spends more than 50 percent of the taxes we pay on past, present and future wars and less than 15 percent on humanitarian practices," Food Not Bombs member Jillian Pim said.  

The group sued in federal court on First Amendment grounds, but a district judge quickly ruled against them. 

"They wouldn't hear us," Pim said. "They said, 'No.'" 

But Wednesday, the appellate court sided with Food Not Bombs, ruling the group's activity does fall under the First Amendment, and comparing what they do with some big names, including Jesus Christ, who "shared meals with tax collectors and sinners to demonstrate that they were not outcasts in his eyes." 

"We made history. I'm so excited," Pim said.  

The appellate court, however, did not rule on the constitutionality of the city's feeding ban ordinance, kicking that issue back to the district court. 

"I'm upset we spent all these resources and all this time trying to defeat the homeless," Trantalis said.

"I think that the ordinance does not help the city or the homeless. I think we need to reverse the ordinance and we need to restructure our whole approach to working with this population.” 

The mayor said beginning in October, unprecedented resources will be brought to bear to try to solve the problem, which now includes a homeless encampment in the heart of downtown.

“We’re hoping by this time next year, you won’t see a tent city,” Trantalis said.  

Pim said she hopes the ruling helps change other cities with similar food-sharing bans.

“We’re excited because this is going to set a precedent across the nation,” she said. 

For now, the Food Not Bombs case will move forward in district court unless, as the mayor said, the city either strikes a deal with the group or reverses its ordinance.

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