Appeals court says Oklahoma City panhandling ordinance violates free-speech rights
A federal appeals court says an Oklahoma City ordinance limiting panhandlers' access to traffic medians violates the First Amendment.
A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, in a ruling Monday, said evidence was insufficient to support the city's claim that the measure was necessary to protect public safety.
University of Oklahoma Law School Professor Joseph Thai, who is part of the legal team challenging the measure on behalf of a panhandler, a politician and others, says the court was right to affirm that traffic medians traditionally are open "forums" for free expression.
"The federal appeals court today vindicated our position that Oklahoma City violated the free-speech rights of citizens when it criminalized the time-honored practice of standing on medians to campaign for votes, fund-raise for charity, or panhandle for necessities," he said in an email.
Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hammon, whose predecessor, Meg Salyer, sponsored the ordinance in 2015, said the ordinance was "originally conceived to target panhandling" and that she was heartened by the news.
"As a city, we have an opportunity to address poverty and those experiencing it in constructive ways," she said by text.
"This ordinance created more opportunities for people experiencing poverty to receive fines and get caught in the criminal legal system," she said. "While my understanding is that we can appeal this ruling, I’m hopeful that we as a City won’t pursue that option."
She said she hoped the city would "instead put our time and resources into addressing the underlying issues that perpetuate poverty."
The ordinance originally was passed in December 2015 on a 7-2 vote. It prohibited "sitting, standing or staying" on traffic medians.
A later revision was cast as a "median safety" measure limiting access to medians where passing traffic moved at relatively high speeds.
Social and religious activists spoke in opposition to the original ordinance, saying the council was going against moves toward criminal justice reform and perpetuating “criminalization of poverty.”
The measure particularly affected panhandlers standing near intersections to solicit handouts from drivers waiting to turn left.
The appeals court panel noted in Oklahoma City traffic medians have long been open to the types of expressive activities protected by the First Amendment, such as political campaigning and charity drives.
The judges said 509 medians had been counted in Oklahoma City and the measure restricted pedestrians' access to 406 -- despite the fact one, near NW 23 and Broadway, is wide enough to have a fire station on it.
About a fourth of the remaining medians were off-limits under other measures aimed at restricting panhandling, the court said.
"The city has no power to ban people from peacefully speaking to each other in the public square," Thai said.
"Mass protests for racial justice have demonstrated the critical importance of respecting our First Amendment freedoms if our country is to preserve its democratic character.
"Unfortunately, the city has squandered four years of legal work and taxpayer dollars defending its unconstitutional attempt to sweep panhandlers out of sight," he said.
Thai said the city should "have devoted those taxpayer resources to addressing the root causes of poverty in our communities."