OMAHA, Neb. — Omaha’s mayor has proposed an ordinance that would bar anyone from standing on certain street medians — a proposal that comes amid complaints that they’re popular spots for panhandling.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that Mayor Jean Stothert and city attorneys hope the wording will head off any complaints about violating anyone’s rights to free speech because it doesn’t mention panhandling.
Federal courts have said panhandling amounts to constitutionally protected free speech. The mayor said her proposed ordinance wouldn’t apply to sidewalks, street corners or medians that don’t meet the criteria statute spells out.
“No matter what the reason that the person is on there, whether it’s for solicitation, whether it’s for political speech, whether it’s for a charity, it restricts the usage of people occupying the medians,” Stothert said.
The mayor submitted the proposal Tuesday to the council, which will consider it in coming weeks, including holding a public hearing. The rule has exceptions for people crossing the street or doing construction work.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska said the key is balancing respecting free speech and ensuring safety.
“We look forward to working with city leaders to evaluate this new proposal and its impact on free speech and vulnerable populations,” said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU of Nebraska.
The proposed ordinance applies only to medians that fit certain criteria, such as being narrow or being within 200 feet of intersections of streets where traffic moves faster than 30 mph.
It is modeled after a similar ordinance that was implemented in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in February.
City Council President Ben Gray said the proposal is focused on public safety even though it will affect panhandlers.
“This is about keeping people safe,” he said. “When you see adults doing it, it won’t be too long until you see children doing it.”
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com