Cities Undermine the Holiday Spirit with Unconstitutional Bans on Sharing Food with the Homeless

Do you, like many Americans, feel especially charitable this time of year? Enjoy helping those in need? Better buy a permit.


As Americans around the country celebrate the Giving Season, various elected officials are busy trying to put a stop to all this charitable mumbo jumbo.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., the city council is considering a rule that would require people to obtain a permit to share food with the homeless and others in need.

"A new ordinance is being considered that limits where people can serve meals on public property, including parks and sidewalks," Nashville's Fox 17 reported last month. "The rule would require a permit each time someone hands out food, and requires people to take food safety classes before they can qualify for a permit."

Food safety classes? Really?

After immediate pushback from residents, Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland offered a flimsy defense of the proposal, arguing that "people who are showing up without notice on a piece of property that's city owned property, that's something we have to go through a process to be able to do that."

Are Murfreesboro's residents now not free to show up without notice on public property, Mr. Mayor?

Elected officials in Newark, N.J., are up to similarly vile shenanigans. After informing local aid groups recently that it would begin prohibiting them from sharing food with people in need in Newark, the city changed its tune slightly "and said that groups who give out food would need a permit and that the new rule would be specifically targeted at those who give food to the homeless," the New York Times reported last week. Wow, how generous.

What exactly has emboldened elected officials in Newark and Murfreesboro to crack down on sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate around the holidays? In truth, these cities are no outliers. Other American municipalities have been hard at work, year-round, combating charitable food donations.

I've devoted many columns to these terrible crackdowns over the years. As I've detailed, cities around the county, including Orlando, Dallas, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Birmingham, and San Antonio, have enacted ordinances that prohibit residents from sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate. Most recently, I blasted a Charlotte, N.C., lawmaker's proposal this past summer to make sharing food with the homeless a misdemeanor there.

Houston is an almost-perpetual offender.

"Groups wanting to serve food can apply for permission from the Mayor's Office for Homeless Initiatives, which provides training prior to the permit being granted," the Houston Chronicle reported last month, in a piece focused on Houston city officials' ongoing attempts to sabotage efforts by the charitable group Food Not Bombs to share food with the homeless and others in need.

These bans are uniformly awful and indecent. They also conflict with the Constitution, I explained nearly a decade ago. Las Vegas, one of the first cities to be sued over its permitting requirements, which were rescinded as a result of a 2010 settlement, had a "ban [that] imposed steep penalties—including a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail— for anyone caught giving away food in public to more than a handful of people without a permit," I explain in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

"No government has a right to interfere with or intercede in my otherwise legal right to express myself through my generosity," Jay Hamburger, a Houston man who's been feeding the homeless for decades, told me in remarks that also appear in my book. Hamburger's right. And even if governments had that power, it's one no decent people should exercise—during the Giving Season or any season.