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Court Backs Activists Who Feed Homeless

Above photo: Haylee Becker and Megan Legates (right) of Food not Bombs feed the homeless in Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel)

Florida – A group whose symbol is a clenched fist holding a carrot won a legal victory over the city of Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, when a federal appeals court found that its weekly events to feed homeless people were protected under the Constitution.

Food Not Bombs, which grew out of an anti-nuclear protest in New England, now has chapters around the United States, which promote the shift of funding away from the military to address hunger, poverty and other problems.

The Fort Lauderdale chapter’s weekly feeding events at Stranahan Park generated opposition downtown, where a growing homeless population had led to tensions with businesses owners and visitors. The city passed a law imposing restrictive regulations on outdoor food-distribution operations, as part of a suite of ordinances aimed at the homeless, such as limits on panhandling and sleeping on public property.

In a ruling that invoked Shakespeare, the Bible and the history of Thanksgiving, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the sharing of food is a richly expressive activity throughout human history and that Food Not Bombs’ work followed in this tradition, constituting conduct protected under the First Amendment.

“The significance of sharing meals with others dates back millennia,” stated the appellate court’s opinion. “The Bible recounts that Jesus shared meals with tax collectors and sinners to demonstrate that they were not outcasts in his eyes. See Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:29–32. In 1621, Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the harvest by sharing the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth. President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, proclaiming it as a day of ‘Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father’ in recognition of blessings.”

The appellate court did not rule on the case as a whole. It simply found that the trial judge was wrong to dismiss it on the grounds that the First Amendment didn’t apply. The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the city’s ordinances violate the First Amendment.

Kirsten Anderson, director of litigation for Southern Legal Counsel and lead attorney for Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, said in a news release that the case addressed the national trend toward the criminalization of homelessness through such measures as local bans on the distribution of free food.

“The court’s opinion recognized sharing food with another human being is one of the oldest forms of human expression,” Anderson said. “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.”

Nathan Pim, a member of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs and one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said “we look forward to continuing our community organizing in Fort Lauderdale.”

“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.” he said.

Fort Lauderdale Interim City Attorney Alain Boileau declined comment.

Although the city suspended enforcement of the law restricting outdoor food distribution, Food Not Bombs in 2015 filed suit to overturn it. The group lost in federal district court, where Judge William Zloch ruled that distributing food was not constitutionally protected “expressive conduct.”

But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday said that the group’s food distribution events were “peaceful political direct action,” and therefore enjoyed First Amendment protection.

The group “does not serve food as a charity, but rather to communicate its message ‘that society can end hunger and poverty if we redirect our collective resources from the military and war and that food is a human right, not a privilege, which society has a responsibility to provide for all.’ Providing food in a visible public space, and partaking in meals that are shared with others, is an act of political solidarity meant to convey the organization’s message.”

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