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ACLU asking federal judge to block Oklahoma City’s anti-panhandling ordinance

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OKLAHOMA CITY – The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has filed paperwork, asking a federal judge to block enforcement of a city ordinance that targets panhandlers.

In April, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma City in response to the so-called “Median Safety Ordinance,” which the city council passed in December.

After receiving complaints from citizens and local businesses, Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer authored the measure that keeps all people off city medians.

The only exceptions are for medians that are 30 feet wide, located more than 200 feet away from any intersection or contain benches or other features designed for public use.

Intersections that are designated on public trails or public parks would also be exempt from the law.

Violators face a $100 fine.

The ordinance passed 7-2 after a lengthy discussion and, at times, heated debate.

Opponents railed against a law they said criminalized the poor and targeted the needy.

On Tuesday, the ACLU filed a motion for summary judgment, asking a federal judge to permanently block enforcing the ordinance.

“This Motion asks the United States District Court to protect the free speech rights of Oklahoma City citizens by striking down the City government’s attempt to criminalize everything from panhandling to political speech and even neighbors talking to one another or walking their dogs in the grass of the City’s many neighborhood medians,” said Brady Henderson, Legal Director of ACLU of Oklahoma. “Our request today asks our local federal court to follow a growing consensus from other courts of law, which have struck down many similar unconstitutional laws and ordinances.”
“This anti-panhandling law sacrifices the free speech rights of all citizens of Oklahoma City,” said Joseph Thai, ACLU cooperating attorney and Law Professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It turns political activists, firefighters, and panhandlers into criminals for engaging in the time-honored practice of speaking to fellow citizens in the heart of the public square. The law is so alarming in scope that it also outlaws pausing on a median to take a breath or tie a shoe. Sadly, the City seems willing to spend more time and money defending this unconstitutional law than addressing the poverty and homelessness that lead to panhandling. In the short-term, this law may accomplish the City’s objective of sweeping panhandlers out of sight, but in the long-term, the City does not join the big leagues by belittling our precious First Amendment freedoms. We are confident this law will be struck down.”

Salyer disputes what the ACLU said, noting she’s been working for years to find a way to direct donations to the most needy – which the Homeless Alliance said most often is not the people asking for money on the street.