ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A lawsuit filed Thursday challenges the constitutionality of two Anchorage ordinances banning panhandlers and restricting people from sitting on sidewalks in the downtown area.
The ordinances passed by the Anchorage Assembly in November 2011 reflect a "police state mentality," Jeffrey Mittman, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said at a news conference attended by several plaintiffs, including a street performance artist and the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO.
Mittman said the ordinances are unconstitutional because they restrict freedoms guaranteed under the state constitution and are like a "sword" hanging over Anchorage residents who now must question what they can and cannot do.
The lawsuit, he said, is about "fundamental freedoms that Americans can rely on."
Lindsey Whitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Sullivan, said the mayor had not received the lawsuit and therefore could not comment on it.
Lead plaintiff Teeka Ballas is a street performer and musician who said she is "offended and outraged by these ordinances." Ballas, who has participated in flash mobs in the downtown area to protest war, said both ordinances restrict freedom of expression and the exercise of dissenting opinions in one of Anchorage's busiest thoroughfares.
One of the ordinances prohibits sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk in the downtown area except during certain overnight hours. The other ordinance bans panhandling. People who sit or lie down on the sidewalks are subject to fines of $100. Panhandlers can be fined $300.
Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said he's concerned about the sidewalk sitting ordinance's effect on union-organized protests to draw attention to unfair treatment of workers.
Beltrami said that under the ordinance, he and his fellow workers involved in building the downtown courthouse years ago would not have been able to gather outside the courthouse for lunch, something they liked to do.
"That would be illegal under this ordinance," he said.
Mittman said that is not the only activity that is prohibited in downtown Anchorage under the ordinances. Add to the list Girl Scouts selling cookies, the Salvation Army and its red collection kettles, firefighters passing the boot for donations, even children selling lemonade.
"All of this is illegal under this law," Mittman said.