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Ald. Reilly proposes crackdown on ‘street harassment’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has her doubts, arguing “what we don’t need is to be incarcerating people on the basis of their words.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) says it’s a “shame that you have to legislate being a decent human being, But, we do.”
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Walking down the street in the downtown area can be downright abusive, but not for long if local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) has anything to say about it.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Reilly introduced what he called a “street harassment ordinance” that would make it a crime to verbally harass another person walking down the street.

The idea, Reilly said, is to “promote more civility on the public way.” Right now, it can be in short supply.

“Every day, you see people in the Loop harassing, making sexual comments, cat calls, obstructing people’s progress in the right of way, threatening people. All of those things are harassment. And police should have a charge on the books that allows them to write a ticket for that,” Reilly said Wednesday.

“It’s a shame that you have to legislate being a decent human being. But we do . . . Walk outside this building and you’ll see it within two or three blocks.”

Two years ago, homeless advocates and civil liberties groups applauded Chicago for quietly repealing what critics called an “unconstitutional” ban on aggressive panhandling.

At the time, opponents warned the repeal might could lead to a more aggressive panhandling, particularly downtown. An attorney for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless hailed the repeal as an important victory for people who panhandle to survive.

Now, Reilly wants to swing the pendulum back and protect the average Joe trying to walk down the street in peace.

He denied the proposed street harassment ordinance was a milder form of stop-and-frisk.

“Not true. You’ll need a complainant. Someone needs to be physically threatened or intimidated and they then have to sign a complaint for that to go through. Police officers can’t go and submit their own complaints,” Reilly said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she hasn’t seen the specifics of Reilly’s street harassment ordinance. But the mere description of it raises red flags at a time when criminal justice advocates are trying to reduce the jail population.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot tells reporters after Wednesday’s City Council meeting that a proposed street harassment ordinances raises more than a few red flags.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

“We want to make sure that anything we do is consistent with the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment. What we don’t need is to be incarcerating people on the basis of their words,” the mayor said.

“Ald. Reilly is a very thoughtful guy and, clearly, is responding to issues that have developed in his ward. But I need to take a look at the language itself.”

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, branded Reilly’s ordinance a “thinly veiled attempt to bring back the unconstitutional aggressive panhandling ordinance.”

“All of the provisions here are either unnecessary because they’re already illegal in ordinance or state law or they are unconstitutional,” Yohnka said.

“You can’t limit speech if you just find it troubling or horrible.”

Reilly’s ordinance casts the broadest possible net by identifying several forms of street harassment.

They include: following someone from behind, walking alongside them or block their path; making unwelcome verbal or hand gestures; insults, taunts and challenges that “inflict injury or are likely to provoke an immediate, violent response”; using “offensively coarse language”; offensive physical contact; referring to someone’s “genitalia, pubic area, buttocks, breasts or sexual activities”; soliciting sex or engaging in conduct that would “cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed, tormented or terrorized.”

Offenders would be slapped with a $100 fine for a first or second offense within a one-year period, $250 for a third offense as well as the possibility of up to 120 hours of community service.