OKLAHOMA CITY – It was a “victory for the First Amendment,” Joseph Thai, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Oklahoma, working with the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid of Oklahoma, noted in an editorial in The Oklahoman this week. The court’s decision on McCraw, et al. v. City of Oklahoma City reaffirms the strength of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the opinion piece, Thai wrote, “Our victory reaffirms the vital constitutional principle that the government generally lacks the power to prevent citizens from peacefully and safely speaking to each other in the public square.”
Filed in the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colo., on August 31st, the appeals court disagreed with an Oklahoma City federal court in 2018, striking down a several-years-old city ordinance that effectively denied all citizens access to and the use of the city’s publicly funded medians.
This included folks like Calvin McCraw, a New Mexico native now living in Oklahoma City, who works as a street vendor for The Curbside Chronicle, a newspaper addressing issues of homelessness in this city. McCraw and other Curbside Chronicle vendors were adversely affected by the City of Oklahoma City’s ordinance against standing in medians. While the city stood firm on the issue of the ordinance being one addressing safety concerns, former city council member Meg Salyer had stated publicly that the sight of homeless people on street corners and on medians in her ward was affecting the quality of life of her constituents.
And online newspaper Red Dirt Report was a plaintiff primarily because of concerns over accessing medians for purposes of covering breaking news or other newsworthy events. Banning people from the medians was affecting the First Amendment rights not only of Red Dirt Report and The Curbside Chronicle but of all news outlets.
Megan Lambert, staff attorney for the ACLU of Oklahoma, said, “Today is an enormous victory for the people of Oklahoma. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated unequivocally that people have the right to express themselves in public places.
“Today’s ruling affirms what we already know – city medians located in the heart of the public square are spaces where people can communicate and exchange ideas, and Oklahoma City’s anti-panhandling ordinance is an unconstitutional violation of that First Amendment right. Whether campaigning for a political candidate, advocating for a cause, soliciting for life-sustaining funds, or protesting police brutality, all Oklahomans have the First Amendment right to speak from public medians.
Added Lambert: “As the last few months have shown, speech in public spaces is a quintessential part of public discourse and social change. The right to speak from medians, located at the center of many public spaces, was affirmed today. We stand with Black Lives Matter and countless others who gather and speak out against injustice on city medians and in other public spaces, and we will continue to fight to protect their right to do so.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, Oklahoma City’s Deputy Municipal Counselor Amanda Carpenter said that the city’s goal for establishing and enforcing the median safety ordinance was safety.
“However,” Carpenter said, “(A)fter 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.”
Plaintiffs in the case also shared their thoughts on the ruling that was in their favor.
“I can tell you from personal experience that medians play an incredibly important role when it comes to reaching people with a political message. They truly are the modern-day town squares,” said Tina Kelly, former Chair of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party. “As proponents of ‘maximum freedom, minimum government’ the Oklahoma Libertarian Party is proud of the role we played in today’s win concerning First Amendment rights and access to public medians in Oklahoma City.”
In a separate statement, the Oklahoma Libertarian added, “While this win may seem insignificant when viewed in comparison to the monumental happenings of current events, it cannot be doubted that freedom of speech is key to the defense of all other freedoms. It is crucial that a self-governing people stand up and defend it zealously when necessary.”
Another plaintiff, Oklahoma City-based activist Mark Faulk, said, in part, in a statement to the press: “As a filmmaker, political candidate, Democratic Party chair and organizer for countless social-political protests I am honored to have been one of the plaintiffs fighting alongside the ACLU and other gifted attorneys to uphold the rights of the many against the power of the few.”
Faulk continued: “While this decision is a clear victory for all those who cherish free expression, it is important to remember that our rights are not often stolen all at once in broad daylight, but are chipped away a little at a time while we are busy with our day-to-day lives, working long hours to earn a living, or simply not paying attention.
“We must be eternally vigilant and aggressive in the defense of all our constitutional rights, and most especially, the sacred right of freedom of speech.”
Editor's note: Reporter Andrew W. Griffin was a plaintiff in this case, when he was still owner/editor of Oklahoma online news publication Red Dirt Report. Griffin no longer operates that website.