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ACLU Sues Oklahoma City Over Median Ordinance Designed To Curb Panhandling

Panhandlers sit in a median at NW 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Oklahoma City.
Brent Fuchs
The Journal Record
Panhandlers sit in a median at NW 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City’s new anti-panhandling ordinance faces a legal challenge after the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed suit Wednesday against the Oklahoma City government and police chief Bill Citty.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of several residents includes a formerly homeless person who sells the Curbside Chronicle newspaper. It says rules restricting the use of street medians violate the constitution.

The Oklahoma Libertarian Party and the Red Dirt Report newspaper also joined the lawsuit, The Journal Record’s Brian Brus reports:

The heart of the matter is whether Oklahoma City’s efforts to keep people from soliciting near busy intersections will truly help avoid accidents or infringe on their constitutional freedom of speech, ACLU legal director Brady Henderson said. The original intent behind the ordinance must also be considered, he said, and evidence suggests that city leaders were motivated first by protecting business and property values. The lawsuit cites numerous emails through City Hall accounts that show the issue began more than a year ago as a quality-of-life proposal by Councilwoman Meg Salyer in response to constituents – merchants and the Neighborhood Alliance in particular – complaining about panhandlers in intersections. It was not until much later that Citty’s staff was asked to produce data on pedestrian accidents, the lawsuit says. The ACLU recently reported on the emails, which it discovered through an open records request.

According to the document, the face of the ordinance was changed by a public information campaign after municipal counselor Kenneth Jordan warned city officials a court battle was likely.

From Brus:

“This is predominantly a First Amendment complaint, although it does address issues of due process as well,” [ACLU of Oklahoma legal director Brady] Henderson said Tuesday. “It is very questionable that there’s an end result that enhances public safety. There’s actually a significant argument to be had to the contrary.” “What the city (officials) did by rebranding this was that they already knew what they wanted to do and then they tried to figure out a justification that sounded better,” he said.

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