San Francisco International Airport tries to drive out solicitors 

Passengers at San Francisco International Airport might soon be able to avoid the antics of aggressive solicitors, but critics of the newly proposed plan say it would violate free-speech rights.

Under a measure being recommended by airport officials, representatives from various religious, nonprofit and other organizations will be barred from a number of locales in the airport, including sidewalks, escalators, restaurants, ticketing and baggage sites, and any air-operation areas.

Furthermore, asking for any sort of personal donation within the confines of the airport will be illegal, according to airport spokesman Michael McCarron.

Instead of wandering freely around SFO’s unpaid areas, organization members must sit at booths to distribute their literature. Any group that wants to be exempt from the new restrictions must submit a petition to airport officials 72 hours before they plan on coming to the hub.

According to airport documents, numerous passengers have complained about aggressive confrontations from solicitors, some of whom pretend to be SFO workers. The airport has received 125 complaints from passengers about the issue. One comment said solicitors “intimidate people as well as harass non-English speakers.”

With those comments in mind, the airport is putting forth the measure as a way to speed up pedestrian flow and prevent any security concerns. On Tuesday, the SFO Airport Commission will hold a public hearing on whether to adopt the new restrictions.

The proposal follows a similar measure enacted last year at Los Angeles International Airport. After a long legal battle, LAX officials won the right to prevent organization members from requesting money or donations from passengers.

That ruling is currently being appealed, according to David Liberman, an attorney who represented the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in the LAX case.

Liberman said the LAX initiative violates freedom-of-speech rights, and he thinks the San Francisco measure is even more overly broad. Because SFO has a number of open amenities — such as food courts, art exhibits and shopping centers — it should be classified as a public space where people are free to distribute literature and ask
for donations.

At LAX, organization members are still allowed to wander the airport so long as they do not exchange money, a liberty that would be banned at SFO.

“This ruling is extremely vulnerable to legal action,” Liberman said. “There is no way that San Francisco can say that solicitors impact pedestrian flow, and there is not even a remote connection with security concerns.”

Greg Anderson, a member of the local branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, said SFO has already begun its crackdown on solicitors, a charge the airport denied.

“We’ve basically stopped going there because we can’t move past these booths,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of people who want to be there, but the airport is very restrictive. It’s not worth it for us to come down.”


Had enough

A sampling of passenger complaints about solicitors at SFO:

“The people asking for donations should not be harassing customers who in a rush to get on the plane.”

“I thought they were security until they flagged me down and detained me with misleading information.”

“I don’t appreciate being scammed.”

“There are people misrepresenting themselves as airport employees asking for donations from passengers. I felt I was taken advantage of.”

“The solicitor is very rude and says he’s the information person then hits you up for a donation.”

“[Solicitor] starting shouting at [traveler] and following him shouting through the terminal.”


Restrictive plan

Under SFO’s proposal, organization representatives would be barred from the following places:

  • Air-operation, secure and sterile areas
  • Roadways and thoroughfares for vehicles
  • Airline service providers, restaurants and retail stores
  • Airport Commission offices
  • Within 10 feet of any escalators, elevators and moving walkways
  • Inside or blocking any doorway
  • Also: Any exchange of money would be completely banned at airport

Source: SFO Airport Commission

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Will Reisman

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