First Amendment

Federal Court: First Amendment Protects Feeding the Homeless—Sort Of

Referencing Shakespeare, the Bible, and American colonial times, a federal court rules in favor of a group's right to feed the homeless.


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An activist group's weekly food-sharing events are constitutionally protected "expressive conduct" under the First Amendment, according to a federal court. The ruling invoked not just the Constitution but Shakespeare and the Bible.

At issue was a feud between the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the city's chapter of Food Not Bombs, a group that seeks to end both poverty and war. Members gather each week at a local park and share food with homeless people. But in 2014, the city passed an ordinance making it a lot harder to hold those events. The ordinance required a permit for public food distribution; in some areas, food-sharing was banned altogether.

Fort Lauderdale took the ordinance very seriously, to the point of arresting two pastors and a 90-year-old man for refusing to follow the restrictions. In February 2015, Food Not Bombs sued the city, claiming the ordinance violates the First Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled in favor of Ford Lauderdale, but Food Not Bombs appealed.

In a ruling dated August 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit handed the group a major victory.

Judge Adalberto Jordan's majority opinion stresses the form and context of the group's meals. Eating food with others is very different from eating alone, he writes: "Unlike a solitary supper, a feast requires the host to entertain and the guests to interact." Jordan backs that up by citing Macbeth:

Lady Macbeth knew this, and chided her husband for "not giv[ing] the cheer" at the banquet depicted in Shakespeare's play. As she explained: "To feed were best at home; From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony. Meeting bare without it."

He then throws in some references to the Bible and the Pilgrims:

The significance of sharing meals with others dates back millennia. 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.

By organizing weekly food-sharing events, he concludes, Food Not Bombs is trying to make a political point: that money spent on war should be used to end poverty instead. Thus, Jordan says, these events are protected speech under the First Amendment. "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," he writes. And acts of "political solidarity" are meant to be symbolic:

History may have been quite different had the Boston Tea Party been viewed as mere dislike for a certain brew and not a political protest against the taxation of the American colonies without representation.

The 11th Circuit's ruling didn't strike down Fort Lauderdale's ordinance, but it did send the case back down to the lower court. Now, the district court will have to rule on whether Fort Lauderdale's ordinance actually violates the First Amendment.

While it's great that Food Not Bombs has a constitutional right to feed the homeless, it remains to be seen how this ruling will affect organizations that aren't trying to convey a political message. Many local governments have cracked down on feeding the homeless over the years. One would hope the 11th Circuit's ruling will force cities to repeal those discriminatory and unconstitutional restrictions. But the ruling doesn't recognize a universal right to voluntarily help people in need.