Food Not Bombs gets temporary ticketing reprieve

Pending a ruling from the judge, so this could be very temporary or it could be for the duration of the lawsuit.

A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday ordered Houston to temporarily stop enforcing a law that requires city permission before anyone can serve more than five people in need on public property.

The order marked a significant victory for Food Not Bombs, a group that has provided free meals outside of Central Library downtown for roughly two decades and received nearly 100 tickets for doing so since 2023. The ruling is a part of the group’s federal lawsuit against the city claiming that the food service is a form of constitutionally protected protest. To win a preliminary injunction, the lawyers had to prove that they were likely to win at trial and that irreparable harm could happen if the court did not intervene.

“It’s beautiful to see that common sense will prevail,” said Brandon Walsh, the named plaintiff. Requests for comments from the city were not immediately returned Wednesday evening.

Food Not Bombs must pay a bond of $25,000, according to the ruling. The bond will be lowered to $2,500 if the group agrees to provide trash receptacles and hand sanitizing stations, as well as ensure people do not block the street and sidewalk during meals. Those members who serve food must also attend a food safety training session.

During the two-hour hearing Monday afternoon, Judge Andrew Hanen asked about the city’s regulations on giving food to those in need. Food Not Bombs argued he should view the case as a First Amendment issue, saying the law wrongfully abridged the rights of a group to protest government spending on defense when basic needs went unmet. City attorneys countered that it was a matter of public health, and the city needed to make sure people were safe from food poisoning or disease spread by vermin.

The Houston ordinance at stake is known as the city’s food-sharing ordinance. Passed in 2012, the law makes it illegal to give away more than five meals to people in need without permission from the property owner, even if the property is public, such as a sidewalk. The mayor at the time, Annise Parker, gave permission to continue sharing meals outside Central Library, where the informal group of volunteers had been serving for roughly a decade.

In 2023, then-Mayor Sylvester Turner made changes. The Houston Health Department updated its policy to require that every approved charitable food location on public property have 10 dedicated parking spaces and two portable restrooms with handwashing stations that would be available all day, every day. The city installed restrooms and handwashing stations at its only approved location — a police parking lot on Reisner Street near the Municipal Courthouse.

Houston also began paying a nonprofit with a long history of serving the homeless to provide meals at the site on the same evenings that Food Not Bombs serves outside the library. Officers warned Food Not Bombs that it would no longer be allowed to provide food at its customary location and encouraged the group to relocate to the Reisner Street lot.

But volunteers continued to provide meals outside the library, arguing the city law was immoral, necessitating civil disobedience. Houston police officers in March started ticketing Food Not Bombs, and Turner took to social media to say that he believed the meals brought homeless people to the area and discouraged families from using the library.

See here for the background and read the rest, there’s a good summary of the arguments and the questions the judge was asking. I’m a little skeptical of the plaintiffs’ case but I don’t think it’s implausible and I can see how the judge might accept it. I also don’t think what the city is trying to do is unreasonable; as the story notes, the city is using its approved location for charitable feeding as part of its strategy to provide housing to those who need it. Maybe they’re being too rigid, maybe they’re stretching things to make their point, I don’t know, but they’re not doing this arbitrarily. What I’d really like here is for the city and Food Not Bombs negotiate an agreement that works for everyone, because what’s been happening does no one any good. I don’t know how to get there from here, buy perhaps the forthcoming ruling will provide some direction and/or incentive towards that end. I’ll keep an eye on this.

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One Response to Food Not Bombs gets temporary ticketing reprieve

  1. David Fagan says:

    Food not bombs should stand their ground, it may be expensive in the court system, but that’s what the Turner Administration used it for. A police evidence room parking lot is a ridiculous place because it’s a step toward moving then out entirely. Food not Bombs won’t have any rights in a police parking lot and would be moved out because of the inconvenience it caused police. Where they are they have an argument. Turner is out, so I hope the city starts saving money from all the legal hassles he put the city in.

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