Musician plays on despite Iowa City panhandling ordinance

Published: July 1 2010 | 3:57 pm - Updated: 2 April 2014 | 2:46 pm in
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Stomping his feet while wagging his shaggy, blond hair street musician Dennis Florine pounded on his acoustic guitar, singing loudly but sweetly for a small audience in downtown Iowa City on a warm, Sunday afternoon.

Stopping only to greet a few listeners, the 23 year-old put down his guitar and exchanged e-mail information with a new fan. As the pair chatted casually about Florine’s music and career ambitions they quickly discovered their shared love for Europe — and began speaking to each other in French.

“Music gets people connected and meeting,” Florine said. “It reminds us that we are human.”

Florine, a suburban Chicago native, said his last visit to Iowa City “excited him” because of the amount of downtown players, but upon his return he found quiet streets, vacant of the music and performers that pleased him before.

The silent streets weren’t his only discovery though, Florine quickly heard of the city’s new panhandling policy, making his small street performance illegal and punishable — with a $65 fine.

“This is a working craft where people put out their hearts,” he said. “Why take away a direct connection to people?”

Since June 9, the new city law makes it illegal for pedestrians to solicit in all but a small area of the Pedestrian mall and, in all of downtown, within 10 feet of a building, 15 feet of crosswalks, 20 feet of ATMs and 10 feet from mobile vendors. Solicitors also must be at least 15 feet apart.

No formal citations have yet to be issued by Iowa City Police, ICPD spokeswoman Sgt Denise Brotherton said.

Although that doesn’t mean officers have not spoken to individuals, police continue to educate and warn pedestrians while they are on foot patrol in the downtown area, she said.

The new law is aimed at panhandlers, but applies to anyone asking for an immediate donation of money, including street musicians and fundraisers.

University of Iowa’s Dance Marathon said their charitable organization will feel the effects of the new law come collection time.

Elyse Meardon, the sponsorship director for Dance Marathon, said canning in the downtown area brought in between $50 and $60 thousand dollars for their organization last year.

The passing of the new policy greatly decreased the area caners are allowed to solicit it, and that can be a problem for UI students trying to raise the $425 needed to participate in Dance Marathon’s “Big Event.”

“It takes years to come up with effective ways of fund raising,” the 22-year-old said. “We only have two months now that summer is starting that’s the frustration and difficulty on our part.”

And it will continue to be difficult for solicitors.

Iowa City City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the city can’t exempt persons from the law based on the reason why they are asking for money. Government can place restrictions on the time, place and manner of the speech not the content.

“The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to distinguish based on content,” she said. “Whether someone is asking for money themselves or asking for a charitable organization, you can’t distinguish on that basis.”

Iowa City Council member Connie Champion acknowledged the problem for musicians and charitable solicitors and said the fact that the city can’t make exceptions can be a problem.

Champion, who didn’t support the ordinance, said the Downtown Association came to the council concerned that the panhandlers were negatively affecting their business because some customers were “uncomfortable eating with beggars.”

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” she said. “I don’t think it will end the earth so to speak, people will find a way to work through it.”

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