A gun-rights group sued the city of Arlington in federal court on Wednesday, seeking to stop a new rule that bans pedestrians from handing out material on specified busy roadways and intersections.
Open Carry Tarrant County’s suit says the amendment to a city ordinance, which goes into effect Thursday, unfairly prohibits its members from distributing literature and pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution in high-traffic areas where they have been demonstrating while carrying flags, long-barreled guns and black-powder revolvers.
The suit, filed by Open Carry Tarrant County and local coordinator Kory Watkins, says the new rule violates group members’ First Amendment rights of free speech and expression. City officials’ stated concerns about public safety appear to be a pretext to shut down the group’s demonstrations, the suit says.
“The suit is about ensuring that Arlington does not step on the First Amendment because the City Council doesn’t like the group that is expressing political speech,” said Warren Norred, an attorney representing Open Carry Tarrant County.
“They passed a law to stop people from handing out the United States Constitution. Really?”
Arlington officials say the ordinance, originally adopted in 1994, is designed to protect pedestrians and motorists. The amendment, passed May 13, has nothing to do with the gun-rights issue or the group.
“The ordinance doesn’t have anything to do with guns,” said Assistant City Attorney Robert Fugate. “There are many other places in the city where they can go about their business, distributing copies of the Constitution or distributing bananas. The content of their speech is irrelevant to the ordinance.”
The law applies to all pedestrians equally and not just the open carry proponents, he said.
Open Carry Tarrant County raised concerns about the constitutionality of Arlington’s ordinance even before two of its members were cited for handing out pamphlets and Constitutions during a demonstration at Collins Street and Road to Six Flags near the Lincoln Square shopping center.
At that time, the ordinance banned pedestrians from standing on sidewalks, medians or other public rights of way anywhere in the city to distribute literature to motorists who were not legally parked.
On May 13, the City Council voted to make the ordinance less restrictive. As amended, people are now prohibited from handing out literature or objects only at specified busy intersections and roadways where pedestrians are already banned from selling merchandise or seeking ridesor charitable contributions from motorists not legally parked in a lot or street parking space.
Collins Street and Road to Six Flags in the entertainment district, where the Open Carry group has demonstrated several times, is one of the 124 identified intersections where such activity is not permitted within 500 feet.
“They threatened to sue the city from the beginning,” Fugate said. “We wanted to make sure our ordinance was completely fair and protected people’s rights. We feel like our ordinance is less restrictive than other ordinances that have passed Constitutional muster.”
Other prohibited areas include large stretches of eight streets — including Abram, Collins, Cooper and Division streets and sections of 16 streets in the entertainment district, including Convention Center Drive near Globe Life Park in Arlington, during major events.
Open Carry members say they don’t need the city to “protect them.”
“This is City Council’s way of saying, ‘We haven’t taken it away everywhere. We have taken it away in certain places where we are protecting the citizens of Arlington,’ ” Norred said. “It’s their lame attempt to write a law that will be on the hairy gray edges of the Constitution.”
No Open Carry members have been hit or nearly hit by motorists during any demonstration, he said.
Fugate said the city has received 911 calls reporting safety concerns about the demonstrators’ activities near the streets.
“Whenever this group goes out, we start getting 911 calls. People do feel uncomfortable by their conduct,” Fugate said. “The ordinance is designed to prohibit the interaction of pedestrians and cars in high traffic areas. These types of regulations have been upheld in the past. This is not something new.”
The suit says the new rule “has caused a chilling effect on members of Open Carry’s willingness to participate as they had in the past, as no one wants to be harassed and threatened with time in jail for doing nothing more than handing out the United States Constitution to those who have stated that they wish to receive it.”
Arlington will continue to enforce the ordinance, Fugate said.