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Government efforts to tidy up the messiness of life can run smack into free expression, and at least once this year, free expression won.

That came in September, when Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled that big chunks of Arcata's anti-panhandling law violate the state and federal constitutions.

Courts do need to balance free speech rights with cities' power to do things like reduce traffic congestion and protect public safety, the judge ruled, but parts of Arcata's 2010 law went too far.

"To put it simply, speech rights prevail in a public forum (e.g. public parks, streets, etc.) in the absence of unique circumstances," Reinholtsen wrote.

He struck down big sections of the city's law, ruling that Arcata cannot ban people from begging as long as they are not on public transit or close to an automatic teller machine.

The judge left standing part of the law that had not been in dispute: Its ban on "aggressive" panhandling involving threats, following people, touching them or their cars, or blocking their passage.

In November, the city decided not to appeal.

Arcata resident Richard Salzman, who brought the suit, and Peter Martin, who represented him, are both on the board of the Humboldt Civil Liberties Defense Fund.

They sued because "it was inappropriate to outlaw holding a sign up," Salzman said, adding that he's glad that the city of Fortuna, which is working on its own panhandling law, has indicated it is studying the ruling for pointers.

Another clash of messy vs. free ended less cleanly, with Humboldt County backing off portions of its urgency ordinance to crack down on protesters outside the county courthouse, but leaving other parts in place.

The revisions came after a jury sent the county a sharp rebuke, refusing in July to convict three protestors who lit candles outside the courthouse after a 9:30 p.m. curfew.

The verdict "will send a message," Deputy Public Defender Casey Russo told the Journal at the time. "This decision shows that it will be very difficult to prosecute these cases."

The county's Human Rights Commission has called for repealing the entire urgency law, which the county passed in March. So has Janelle Egger, who challenged the law in court but dropped her suit after the county removed the curfew.

While she would rather see the law killed, Egger was guardedly optimistic last week that a subcommittee studying its provisions will suggest more changes. But she doesn't call it a clear win.

"An ordinance was enacted restricting free speech in front of the courthouse, and a major portion of it is still on the books and it's taking a long time to change it. That's not good. Hopefully, it will change."

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Carrie Peyton Dahlberg

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Carrie Peyton Dahlberg was editor of the North Coast Journal from June 2011 to November 2013.

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