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OKC changes median ordinance, but critics say it is still unconstitutional

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
"Curbside Chronicle" vendor Calvin McCraw, shown here in 2015, is a plaintiff in the ACLU's lawsuit against the City of Oklahoma City over an anti-panhandling ordinance they say is "unconstitutional."
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Council voted Tuesday to approve a change to Oklahoma City’s median safety ordinance, nicknamed the “Panhandling Ordinance,” that eased some of the restrictions from its original ordinance, but not enough to make detractors happy.

The change now prohibits pedestrians on any size median on streets with speed limits of 40 mph and higher. The change was introduced during the Council’s Oct. 24 meeting and was recommended by the Municipal Counselor’s Office. The recommendation was in response to public concerns from the community about the restrictions in the original ordinance adopted in December 2015.

The original ordinance prohibited people from standing or sitting on medians based on the size of the median, exempting medians more than 30 feet in width, but the new ordinance includes all medians regardless of size on streets with a speed limit on 40 mph or higher.

According to a statement from the City of Oklahoma City, the new change was based on information from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports higher vehicle speeds increase the likelihood of death or life-threatening injury to a pedestrian when a vehicle hits someone. A person hit by a vehicle at 40 mph has an 85 percent of being killed, compared to 5 percent at 20 mph and 45 percent at 30 mph, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the city said.

The new change is not making original detractors any happier. In April 2016, a 50-page lawsuit was filed by ACLU Oklahoma claiming that the ordinance targets panhandlers and the poor for special prosecution and criminalization. In addition, because it limits media presence on medians, it also violates free speech and free press.

Among those listed as plaintiffs include Calvin McCraw, who sells The Curbside Chronicle in Oklahoma City; Wayne Marshall; activist and filmmaker Mark Faulk; jogger Neal Schindler; the Oklahoma Libertarian Party; and Red Dirt Report.

According to the ACLU, the new change still limits First Amendment rights and targets the poor.

“Make no mistake about it, today’s amendment to the City Council’s unconstitutional and ill-advised anti-panhandling ordinance does nothing to make the city code constitutional. With or without today’s amendment, this ordinance is wildly out of compliance with the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions,” said Brady Henderson, ACLU Oklahoma legal director.

“Because city government still refuses to respect these constitutional rights, we must and will continue to defend them in our ongoing litigation. From the beginning, this ordinance has been about limiting the First Amendment rights of Oklahoma City’s indigent population and sweeping visible evidence of poverty under the rug. Like the ordinance as originally passed, today’s amendment makes the public no safer.

“Instead it only serves to drag already costly litigation out further. If the City Council is truly interested in protecting the residents they ostensibly serve, they cannot continue to punish the poor under the guise of protecting public safety. We will continue to litigate this case until this ordinance is repealed or ruled to be the unconstitutional.”

The city statement, however, said that because medians are traffic safety devices, they are dangerous places for pedestrians to sit, stand or stay. The Municipal Counselor’s Office redrafted the regulation to address only the “greatest danger to pedestrians on traffic medians.”

Editor and owner of Red Dirt Report, Andrew Griffin, said that as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, his online newspaper continues to believe that the city's ordinance is unconstitutional. Griffin also said he was disappointed that the city does not seem to understand the importance of the First Amendment and that free speech and a free press extend to public spaces, including medians.

OKC media covering press conference held on Lincoln Blvd. median in Sept. 2014. (Tim Farley / Red Dirt Report)

"Red Dirt Report has actually covered press conferences held on medians. We have covered breaking news events and stood on medians talking to eyewitnesses and first responders," Griffin said, adding, "The level of arrogance and indifference, on the part of the city council, to the needs of all citizens - including the poor, who often utilize medians to reach the public, like the Curbside Chronicle vendors - is troubling and makes one question their real motives in pushing this forward."

Griffin also wondered why more Oklahoma City media outlets were not joining in the fight against the city and pushing back against continued tactics of repression against the press, the homeless and, frankly, all citizens.

"They have a stake in this too," he said.

The ordinance takes effect Dec. 7. Violators will be subject to a fine of up to $100, plus court costs.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer originally authored the measure that keeps all people off city medians after receiving complaints from citizens and local businesses. Exceptions to the rule are medians that are 30 feet wide and located more than 200 feet away from benches, intersections or other public use features.

By a 7-2 vote, the Oklahoma City council approved an ordinance in April 2016 that requires panhandlers to back 50 feet from any mass transit or school bus stop. A 20-foot buffer zone remains for public outdoor areas and cafes, pay phones, ATMs and other public-use areas.

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Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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