Appeals court rejects Oklahoma City anti-panhandling law
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma City law that places restrictions on panhandling on street medians is an unconstitutional violation of free speech, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver reversed the ruling of a federal judge in Oklahoma City who ruled in 2018 that the ordinance was constitutional.
Plaintiffs included two homeless men who used the medians to panhandle, including one who sold issues of the Curbside Chronicle newspaper, two joggers and a community activist who has used medians to protest and erect signs for his legislative candidacy.
The court found that medians have traditionally been used for expressive activity.
“Objectively, medians share fundamental characteristics with public streets, sidewalks and parks, which are quintessential public fora,” the court wrote.
American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma staff attorney Megan Lambert says she was “thrilled” with the court’s decision.
“This is the first time the 10th Circuit has ruled that medians are part of the traditional public fora that make up the city spaces with the most free speech protections,” Lambert said.
“Right now what it means is that protesters, panhandlers, Curbside Chronicle vendors, joggers, journalists ... can return to Oklahoma City medians to express themselves, solicit for lifesaving funds and advocate for political candidates.”
Attorneys for the city had argued medians were dangerous places for pedestrians to be and that the ordinance was necessary for public safety, but the court said there was no evidence to suggest that was the case.
“There is neither evidence of any accident involving a pedestrian on a median, fatal or not, nor evidence that a pedestrian on a median caused an accident or distracted a driver enough to compromise the safety of the pedestrian or the driver,” the court wrote.
An attorney for the city reiterated Monday that public safety was the city’s goal with the ordinance.
“Safety is always our number priority and was the reason for the adoption of the Median Safety ordinance,” Deputy Municipal Counselor Amanda Carpenter said in a statement. “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.”