EDITORS NOTE: Click on the links for a copy of the lawsuit, McCraw v City of OKC, and its exhibits 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5

OKLAHOMA CITY – Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit today, seeking to overturn an Oklahoma City municipal ordinance that bans panhandling and other forms of activity from public medians.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal district court for the Western District of Oklahoma, seeks to overturn an anti-panhandling ordinance that was adopted by the Oklahoma City Council in December.

Written by Oklahoma City Councilwoman Meg Salyer the ordinance bans all activity on public medians less than 30 feet in width. The ordinance also includes a $100 fine. The ordinance passed by a 7-2 vote.

ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said the ordinance violates the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution by restricting free speech. Kiesel said the ACLU has opposed this and previous attempts by Oklahoma City officials to limit the speech of city residents.

“Oklahoma City’s latest attack on our free speech rights may be directed at men, women and children struggling with crushing poverty, but make no mistake about it, this new ordinance jeopardizes rights guaranteed to everyone by the United States Constitution,” he said. “The majority of the City Council may have tried to rebrand this ordinance as a public safety issue but, in reality, it amounts to nothing more than a direct attack on the poorest among us and on the 1st Amendment rights of all of the people in Oklahoma City.”

Norman attorney and former U.S. Supreme Court Law Clerk Joseph Thai, who is working with the ACLU and Legal Aid on the lawsuit, said the ordinance “tramples the free speech rights of the least among us, and does substantial collateral damage to the free speech rights of all of us.”

“The city cannot banish the speech of the poor from the public square, particularly public medians that are prime 1st Amendment real estate for reaching fellow citizens inexpensively and effectively,” Thai said.

Thai said Oklahoma City’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution to panhandling is no solution at all.

“It utterly fails to address the extreme poverty and chronic homelessness that are the root causes,” he said. “What the City has done is turned a poverty crisis into a constitutional crisis. Cloaking a crackdown on panhandling as a traffic safety measure is a sham not worthy of elected government, and applying the crackdown to virtually all speech and activities on public medians—from political campaigning to evening dog walking—multiplies rather than hides the constitutional harms.”

Michael G. Figgins, Executive Director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, said ordinances such as the Oklahoma City one, put homeless and vulnerable citizens at risk.

“Holding a hand written sign asking for help may soon be a crime,” he said.  “Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma clients are dependent on the kindness of Oklahoma City citizens to maintain housing, pay for needed medications and obtain food.  The exercise of constitutionally protected free speech cannot be made a crime or denied so as to cause harm to LASO clients.”

ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson agreed. Henderson said the ACLU had previously urged city officials to back away from the ordinance and instead, redirect their efforts toward programs that would help lift struggling Oklahomans out of poverty.

“These kind of ordinances make it a crime to be poor,” he said. “Even a $100 fine is a huge amount for an individual who is struggling just to survive.”

Henderson said city officials could have chosen a different approach to address homelessness in Oklahoma City, instead of passing an ordinance that attacks the poor and the 1st Amendment.

“There are far better ways to address poverty and homelessness,” he said.