Federal court overturns OKC panhandling ordinance

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – An Oklahoma City ordinance that critics say unfairly targets panhandlers has been overturned in federal court.

The City said the law was all about safety. The citizens that filed the lawsuit against it in federal court said it violated people’s free speech.

This week, Federal judges agreed.

“It made it a crime for anyone and everyone to sit, stand or stay on medians,” said attorney Joseph Thai, an OU Law Professor.

Back in 2015, the OKC City Council was reportedly receiving complaints about increased panhandling in and around Downtown OKC.

After conferring with their attorneys, OKC passed a measure that restricted people’s access to medians- citing traffic and safety concerns for pedestrians and drivers.

“They could not come up with a single accident out of 10s of thousands involving a pedestrian on a median,” said Thai.

A group of OKC citizens filed a lawsuit in Federal court.

The City won initially, but on Monday, the 10th circuit court of appeals issued an opinion saying the city ordinance “reveals troubling evidence of animus against panhandlers.”

“That means prejudice against panhandling and more over the city just failed to prove its traffic safety case,” said Thai.

Thai led the legal team fighting the ordinance. He says the ruling now protects citizens rights to free speech in medians.

“Whether it’s to ask for money, to ask for votes or to protest,” said Thai.

The City declined our request for an interview- instead, issuing this statement from Amanda Carpenter, the city attorney who argued the case.

“Safety is always our number one priority and was the reason for the adoption of the Median Safety ordinance. However, after the 10th Circuit’s ruling today the City will not be enforcing its ordinance prohibiting persons from sitting, standing or staying on Oklahoma City medians.”

“We advocated against it,” said Dan Straughn, head of the OKC Homeless Alliance and the Curbside Chronicle, a magazine sold at intersections that helps the homeless.

He says the opinion makes sense.

“We felt all along that there were better ways to address the issues that lead people to panhandle than a punitive ordinance,” said Straughn.

Thai says this ruling has far-reaching effects that are very timely.

“Although this case started out about panhandling, it’s ending up protecting our precious rights to protest government policies that we don’t like,” said Thai.

Since that ruling came in Federal court, Thai says it’s now binding law in not only Oklahoma but in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming as well.

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