October 4, 2016
OKLAHOMA CITY – The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed a Motion for Summary Judgment today in its challenge to Oklahoma City’s recently enacted anti-panhandling ordinance. The Motion asks a Federal Judge to permanently block enforcement of the ordinance, which makes it a crime for citizens to sit, stand, or stay on most public medians in Oklahoma City; places that traditionally are recognized as public spaces.
“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.”
The ACLU of Oklahoma, in partnership with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma and Professor Thai, filed the federal challenge in April on behalf of seven plaintiffs representing a broad cross-section of Oklahoma City people and organizations. They include press, panhandlers, and even a political party. However, a narrow set of Oklahoma City’s most vulnerable citizens persisted as the ordinance’s intended targets.
“At a time when agencies who work with the homeless are identifying the decriminalization of poverty as an important tool in ending homelessness, the City of Oklahoma City took a step in the wrong direction,” said Greg Beben, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. “The City defied vocal opposition in Council meetings and took away an important forum for its most desperate citizens. We have outlined how this alleged safety ordinance was borne from a wish to hide the poor and the homeless, and we have shown why branding a law as a safety ordinance does not shield it from the Constitution. We are confident that our clients and others like them will once again be able to exercise their full First Amendment rights in Oklahoma City.”
The case is McCraw v. City of Oklahoma City, CIV-16-352. A copy of the Motion for Summary Judgment and its accompanying Brief in Support are attached here. Copies of the Exhibits filed with the Brief are available on request.