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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Can Dallas keep enforcing law banning people from standing in medians? A federal judge will decide

People were already gathered outside Dallas Police Headquarters shortly after 5 p.m. Monday.
Kent Barker
Special To KERA News
Lawyers say a city ordinance that outlaws standing close to busy roadways violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.

A lawsuit frames the ordinance as an unconstitutional panhandling ban that violates the First Amendment. The city says it’s a public safety measure meant to save lives.

A federal judge in Dallas will soon rule on whether to stop Dallas from enforcing an ordinance until a First Amendment lawsuit concludes. Judge Renee Toliver heard testimony Thursday from the city, and from lawyers representing an array of clients who are asking for a temporary injunction.

It was the first major hearing in a lawsuit brought by two people who panhandle for a living, a political activist, and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

They’re challenging an ordinance passed last fall by the Dallas City Council that makes it a crime to walk or stand “on a median that measures six feet or less,” or is a designated “clear zone.” Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor punishable by a ticket and fine up to $500.

A 'constitutional right'?

In court, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the ordinance was meant to ban panhandling, and it deprives two of their clients — Alton Waggoner and Lafayette “Teri” Heishman — of a constitutional right to hold signs at busy intersections or interact with drivers who want to pray with them or give them aid.

They also argued the ordinance prevents activists, including plaintiff Kawana Menchaca with the DFW Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, from protesting and holding vigils near enough to busy roadways for their signs to be read by passersby, limiting their speech rights. A fourth plaintiff, Hannah Lebovitz, is an urban affairs professor who conducts research with individuals experiencing homelessness, work that often brings her into so-called “clear zones.”

The lawyers are from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project and the First Amendment legal clinic at Southern Methodist University. They also argue the ordinance hinders journalists reporting on social movements.

The city’s response

A lawyer for the city, Ana Jordan with the firm Carter Arnett, rejected the argument that it is a panhandling ban. While city council members did repeatedly express interest in curbing panhandling at the time the ordinance was passed last fall, the measure was only about pedestrian safety.

The ordinance followed the council’s commitment to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities across the city, a program called Vision Zero. The city’s housing director, Gus Khankarli, testified that Dallas has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the nation.

Jordan said the plaintiffs are still free to express themselves – hold signs saying they’re homeless, hold banners expressing political messages, conduct research – but that they must do so at a safe distance from busy roadways.

The ordinance includes exceptions to the ban on loitering near busy roadways, including for permitted marches, for workers with permits to operate in the intersection, and for firefighters who are allowed, under state law, to stand in intersections asking drivers for donations.

But the plaintiffs argue that that amounts to government censorship, leaving it up to public officials who decides what speech and expression is allowed in city streets.

The lawyers will continue presenting arguments later this month before Judge Toliver decides whether to allow the city to enforce its ordinance while the lawsuit proceeds.

Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.