Sharing Food With The Homeless Is Not A Crime--It's A First Amendment Right

Kirsten Anderson, Litigation Director - Southern Legal Counsel

Kirsten Anderson, Litigation Director - Southern Legal Counsel

During the holidays, it is hard to miss the significance of sharing your table with others. Invitations to share food in celebration and in thanksgiving are seemingly unending this time of year, as are food drives and pleas to help those who are hungry and homeless in our communities. 

Imagine spending your day volunteering to provide food to people who are hungry, and ending it in handcuffs, arrested before you can finish serving the meal. Several volunteers with Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs found themselves in this exact situation in November 2014 when police arrested them during their weekly food sharings at a public park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Their crime? Sharing their table with homeless and hungry individuals, made a crime by the City along with a slate of other laws targeting the homeless population.

Counsel with volunteers from Food Not Bombs outside of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta after the oral argument in the case.

Counsel with volunteers from Food Not Bombs outside of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta after the oral argument in the case.

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs did not back down. The group sued the City in federal court, alleging violations of their free speech rights. Associated with the international grassroots Food Not Bombs movement, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit share food not as an act of charity but as an act of political solidarity to convey the message that food is a human right. The case was brought by Southern Legal Counsel and attorneys Andrea Costello and Mara Shlackman. Amicus briefs were filed by Tracy Segal of Akerman LLP on behalf of multiple Food Not Bombs groups, and by Florida Legal Services on behalf of legal scholars, including Professor Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez, Latina and Latino Critical Legal Theory Inc., and Society of American Law Teachers Inc.

Don't Feed the Homeless Sign at Stranahan Park

Don't Feed the Homeless Sign at Stranahan Park

In a groundbreaking opinion citing the examples of the Boston Tea Party, Jesus Christ, Pilgrims and Native Americans, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in favor of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs. The Court held that the First Amendment protects outdoor food sharing as “expressive conduct” under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This decision is the first pronouncement on this issue by any federal appeals court in the country.

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The Court recognized the significance of food sharing throughout history: “Like the flag, the significance of sharing meals with others dates back millennia.” The Court found that Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs was clearly engaged in more than a “picnic in a park” and had instead established “an intent to ‘express[] an idea through activity.’” The Court concluded that Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs is engaged in protected expression when it shares food outdoors in public parks.

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs continues its fight as the case is now back in front of the district court where the court will decide whether the City’s outdoor food sharing regulations violate the First Amendment.  Nathan Pim, a member of Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, was one of the individually named plaintiffs. “We are very pleased with this ruling, and we look forward to continuing our community organizing in Fort Lauderdale,” Pim shared in Southern Legal Counsel’s case update. “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.”

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs Food Sharing at Stranahan Park

Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs Food Sharing at Stranahan Park

The significance of this decision reverberates around the country. The City of Fort Lauderdale was neither the first, nor the last, City to criminalize sharing food. In a recent incident in Kansas, the local government took enforcement actions against the group Free Hot Soup that included discarding and pouring bleach on food meant to be shared with hungry people. The group, bolstered by this court decision, continues to share food in public parks.

It is our ultimate goal that cities, like Fort Lauderdale, understand that they are the ones violating the law when they throw people in jail for sharing food. These policies are not only unconstitutional, but they are a poor use of government resources.  Until governments recognize that the only solution to homelessness is housing not handcuffs, we will continue to fight these battles in the court and on the streets.