Oklahoma City will have to pay nearly $1 million to five lawyers whose clients challenged a panhandling ordinance that violated their First Amendment rights of free speech.
That cost is in addition to what taxpayers shelled out already to defend an unconstitutional ordinance. We hope these costs will serve as an example for members of other legislative bodies so they will think twice before attempting to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of their constituents.
Accounts of the contentious proceedings indicate the 2015 anti-panhandling ordinance was prompted in part by complaints from merchants about homeless residents. The ordinance, which prohibited use of medians less than 30 feet wide, was challenged by two homeless men who used the medians to panhandle — one sold issues of the Curbside Chronicle newspaper — two joggers, a journalist and a community activist.
Municipal officials were warned about the constitutional implications before it was adopted — there were reports about city councilors there taking a step back to rethink their approach before proceeding. They eventually passed the ordinance as a public safety measure, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August 2020 the city "utterly failed" to justify its need for the ordinance.
If the government wants to restrict First Amendment rights, it must prove there is a compelling reason to do so. Any restriction must be narrowly tailored so those rights are not unduly burdened.
The appellate court found medians have traditionally been used for expressive activity and "share fundamental characteristics with public streets, sidewalks and parks, which are quintessential public fora.” In addition to prohibiting panhandling — the "right to beg or seek alms in a public place is First Amendment activity" — it blocked access to protestors and journalists covering breaking news.
Public safety is an important goal, but using it as subterfuge to promote an unconstitutional agenda cannot be tolerated. Passing laws with knowledge they cannot stand up under scrutiny of a legal challenge is a waste of public funds.
Voters should think twice before returning to office legislators who engage in this practice.