Is it legal to restrict food-sharing?

By Jackie Dowd

The food-sharing in downtown Orlando went on as usual last Wednesday night, despite the decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city’s ordinance restricting groups and individuals from sharing food with homeless and hungry people in public parks.

The 2-1 ruling, handed down on July 6, overturned a trial court’s determination that the food-sharing events were expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The federal appeals court found that the likelihood was not great that a reasonable observer would understand Orlando Food Not Bombs’ conduct of simply feeding people to be “truly communicative.”

The court also ruled that the ordinance does not violate the right to free exercise of religion by the First Vagabonds Church of God, a ministry by and for the homeless. The ordinance applies to about 40 of Orlando’s 99 parks, and limits food-sharing events to two per park per year.

In the wake of the court decision: What’s next?

Way back at the beginning of this case, we told ourselves: “If we win, then we win. But even if we lose, we win.”

That’s because even then, in the summer of 2006, we were thinking about the big picture. What the First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando lawsuit accomplished was to bring the discussion of homelessness and poverty out into the open in Orlando, in a way that it never has before. Making sure that discussion continues is vitally important, and that will be an important consideration in deciding what the next steps will be.

There are several legal options, such as seeking a rehearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. We have a few more days to decide exactly what to do.

Many people have asked why we didn’t pursue a freedom of assembly claim. At the beginning of the case, we did assert that the ordinance violated the right to freedom of assembly. But the trial judge ruled for the city on that claim, determining that the members of Food Not Bombs and their homeless friends are free to assemble in the park so long as they do not serve food.

There also are options outside the courtroom. Perhaps the most important is making sure the food-sharings continue, as they have every Wednesday evening for more than five years.

Moving to outside the restricted zone (a 2-mile radius of City Hall) is being discussed. While there are good reasons for staying at Lake Eola Park, the members of Orlando Food Not Bombs are concerned about the impact of increased police scrutiny on the homeless and hungry folks they are helping. Many of the people who come to eat a healthy vegan meal have outstanding warrants or other issues with law enforcement. In past, attendance has been low when police are present at the food-sharing.

Lake Eola Park – often described as the “crown jewel” of Orlando’s 99 parks – was chosen for its symbolic value in conveying a message to the upper-middle class folks who live and work in what is often described as a gentrified area of downtown. In many ways, that message has been delivered.

Continuing the public discussion of homelessness and poverty may be the most important item on our “to do” list. Food Not Bombs will be meeting with other groups that have been using the park for sharing food, looking at the big picture and planning ways to build stronger community and political will to reduce homelessness and poverty.

And there’s an even bigger picture to keep in mind. The United States does not guarantee its citizens the right to food. Twenty-two other countries have enshrined the right to food in their constitutions, either for all citizens or specifically for children. Our friends at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty have been working hard to promote the right to housing set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including … housing.”

So there’s a lot of work still to do. The food-sharings will continue and we will be working toward some larger goals, too.

The silver lining here may be that the continued sense of injustice in the wake of the 11th Circuit’s decision just may help us accomplish our larger goals.

Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s (NLCHP) Food Sharing Report

NLCHP’s information page on housing and other human rights

Opinion piece about the court decision

Jackie Dowd is an NCH AmeriCorps*VISTA Member and Volunteer Lawyer who coordinates the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau in conjunction with the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida in Orlando. Check out Jackie’s blog on homeless and other social justice issues at http://www.jackiedowd.blogspot.com/

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3 Responses to Is it legal to restrict food-sharing?

  1. Heather says:

    They arent saying you cant feed homeless people just not in a public park like that.

  2. Chrysander says:

    if the cops werent so bad in florida it would be really cool

  3. A380 says:

    They arent saying you cant feed homeless people just not in a public park like that.

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