A loose-knit group of anti-poverty activists and a church with a largely homeless congregation sued the city. In the ensuing years, the case has slowly tilted back and forth. A federal judge sided with the homeless advocates, but the majority of a three-person panel of appeals judges overturned that ruling.
That probably would have been the end, but the homeless advocates are getting one more shot today. The appeals court agreed to toss out the ruling from its own three-person panel and allow the full court to reconsider the case.
A decision is likely months away, but the hearing is crucial — it's the one chance for both sides to make their case before the court. There's no jury or witnesses delivering testimony; lawyers will present their arguments, and judges will ask the questions and make the decision.
After years of legal wrangling, the case has been condensed to a single question: Whether sharing food with homeless and hungry people in a public park is "expressive conduct" protected by the constitution. Expressive conduct is an act or behavior that's equivalent to free speech, like burning a flag or wearing a black armband to protest a war.
Members of the group Orlando Food Not Bombs argue that by feeding the homeless, they are spreading the message that society should ensure no one goes hungry.
City officials contend the rules that limit feeding large groups of people are a reasonable way to make sure no single park is overburdened.
The homeless advocates may have the advantage. It's very rare to be granted a hearing before the full court, and getting one could mean the judges disagree with the smaller panel that sided with the city.
"I think we'll prevail, but there's a good chance we won't," City Attorney Mayanne Downs said.
The loser can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it agrees to review less than 1 percent of the cases heard by federal appeals courts.