A controversial city of Fort Lauderdale ordinance banning the sharing of food with homeless residents in a city park was dealt a blow by a federal appeals court Wednesday. The decision declared food sharing as protected by the First Amendment, and sent the case back to a lower court to decide whether the city violated the right to free speech.
The lower court had previously sided with the city.
At issue was a 2014 city ordinance that banned food sharing in public parks unless the park was located at least 500 feet from residences. It also mandated that those providing food provide portable toilets and hand washing stations.
For years the non-profit group Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs had organized a weekly event where it fed homeless residents at Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Shortly after the ordinance was passed, a 90-year-old man was arrested for handing food to homeless residents, which garnered national attention.
Facing a nationwide backlash, the city agreed to temporarily stop enforcing the ordinance. Food Not Bombs sued the city a few weeks later, alleging that sharing food is protected by the First Amendment.
Writing for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals for Wednesday’s decision, the three judge panel agreed. In an at-times poetic decision, the judges cited Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Boston Tea Party, the Bible’s Jesus (“sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners to demonstrate that they were not outcasts in his eyes”), and Native Americans sharing food with the Pilgrims as proof of that analysis.
“The reasonable observer would interpret [Food Not Bombs'] food sharing events as conveying some sort of message,” the judges wrote.
Food Not Bombs' weekly event of breaking bread with the poor is clearly a form of “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment,” the judges wrote.
In a statement, Southern Legal Counsel, which represented Food Not Bombs, said that the decision marked the "first pronouncement on this issue by any federal appeals court in the country."
“The court’s opinion recognized sharing food with another human being is one of the oldest forms of human expression,” said Kirsten Anderson, director of litigation for Southern Legal Counsel. “We think this decision strengthens our message to cities across the country that they need to invest in constructive solutions to homelessness instead of wasting government resources on punishing people who seek to offer aid.”
“We are very pleased with this ruling, and we look forward to continuing our community organizing in Fort Lauderdale,” said Nathan Pim, a member of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs. “We hope we are one step closer to something we've fought for over many years — simply being able to help people without being threatened with arrest by people who should be working with us.”
The group has been vocally opposed to what it calls “Homeless Hate Laws” that have been passed in Fort Lauderdale in recent years.
The city of Fort Lauderdale declined to comment on the decision.
The case will now go back before a court in South Florida in order to decide whether Food Not Bombs’ First Amendment rights were violated and whether the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague.
This post has been updated with comment from Food Not Bombs and Southern Legal Counsel