By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The Oklahoman Editorial Board recently stated that a federal judge has ruled that the Oklahoma City ordinance that outlaws panhandling from traffic medians is constitutional. The ordinance was approved by the city council in December 2015 after much debate.
The ordinance prohibited standing on traffic medians near busy intersections and was later tweaked to apply only to roughly 400 medians located within streets with a 40-miles-per-hour speed limit or greater, strengthening the public safety rationale for the restriction.
The editorial contends that the ordinance increases the safety of panhandlers and drivers. Data from multiple national entities shows a large share of traffic accidents occur near intersections, and a majority of fatal pedestrian accidents involve cars traveling more than 40 mph.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have challenged the law, arguing it violated constitutional free-speech and equal-protection guarantees. Anti-panhandling ordinances in cities including Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado and Florida have been struck down as unconstitutional.
Megan Lambert, ACLU-OK Staff Attorney stated that the ruling is “merely the initial step on our path of protecting the First Amendment rights of our clients and all Oklahoma City residents. The District Court gets the first, but not the last, word on the constitutionality of the City’s anti-panhandling ban.
“We are disappointed by the Court’s ruling, …but feel confident that the free speech rights of our plaintiffs and other Oklahoma City residents–from panhandlers to journalists to political advocates–will be vindicated on appeal,”
Lambert added. “We look forward to having our arguments heard in the Federal Appeals Court and are prepared to fight for our clients each step of the way.”
The Oklahoman also stated that, “In a decision by U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton, he concluded the ‘primary purpose’ of the medians covered by the ordinance is ‘traffic control’ and that those medians are often “considerably less accessible than the streets, sidewalks and parks” typically used for free-speech activities. He wrote that ‘expert testimony’ is not required to conclude ‘that traffic is more dangerous at high speeds than low speeds’ and that ‘the risk to pedestrians is greater if traffic is speeding past them on two sides rather than one.'”
Noting a prior Fourth Circuit ruling declared “common sense and logic” sufficient reason to remove pedestrians from certain medians, Heaton pointed out that “plaintiffs are not proscribed from sitting, standing or staying at the same intersections they did before – they just cannot stand in the medians, in the middle of the road, at some locations.”
The Oklahoman editorial also stated, “Oklahoma City’s ordinance applies equally to everyone, so it isn’t discriminatory. It serves a valid public purpose by increasing safety. And it provides citizens with a reasonable free-speech alternative to standing in the median.”
The Oklahoman’s argument contends that “basic compassion is reason enough to support this ordinance.”
The ACLU vows to appeal Heaton’s decision.
According to their website, “At trial, we will illustrate for the Court the importance of medians in facilitating public discourse central to a democratic society and the injustice of threatening the survival of our community’s most marginalized population.”