City Hall

As City Hall Battles Activists' Lawsuit, Dallas Moves to Ease Rules on Street-corner Protests

The city of Dallas swears it wasn't violating anyone's free speech rights when it ticketed a half dozen activists last January protesting the soon-to-open Bush Library by holding political signs along the Central Expressway service road. As the city has explained in court, police were simply ensuring the safety of passing motorists by enforcing an ordinance barring hand-held signs within 75 feet of the city's highways.

So naturally, the city's proposed relaxation of the law to allow signs to be held on public sidewalks, regardless of whether they are within 75 feet of a highway, has nothing to do with the federal lawsuit the six activists filed last month.

"Our intent is primarily [to regulate signs on] roadways 55 miles per hour or faster," Dallas police Assistant Chief Michael Genovesi told members of the City Council's transportation committee on Monday.

Since service roads don't fall into that category, and since there are no sidewalks on the highways themselves, Genovesi said the proposed rules would be enough to keep protesters from distracting freeway drivers.

Protesters would also be allowed to hold their signs while they cross overpasses (it would be "difficult to just prohibit them from walking on a sidewalk," Genovesi says), though the proposed ordinance will include language preventing them from displaying the signs or pausing for too long.

See also: Peace Activists at Center of Bush Library Protests Are Suing Dallas for Stifling Speech

Tickets, then, could be handed out to protesters on an overpass when it became "apparent their intent is for drivers to read the message from the freeway," Genovesi said. "That's the type of behavior we're trying to curtail."

That goes for those giant Bush/Cheney bobbleheads, too, which will be treated as signs under the new rules.

Councilman Lee Kleinman praised DPD for "trying to legislate against the problem" instead of trying to legislate a specific solution, and his colleagues on the committee mostly voiced agreement.

The exception was Philip Kingston, who wondered how distracting handheld political signs actually are given the billboards and brightly lit commercial signs drivers are constantly bombarded with. He cited an instance a couple of days ago involving an electronic billboard along the highway flashed a picture of a "bikini-clad young lady," which he described as "more distracting than the Bush bobblehead."

Genovesi, who says he commutes through cities that have allowed anti-Obama protests on overpasses, said that such demonstrations are far more distracting than the billboards drivers pass every day, which tend to fade into the background.

Kingston countered with a warning. Unless, the city can provide data showing that political signs are more distracting than other signage, "we're gonna lose, and we're gonna pay attorney's fees -- again."

Committee chair Vonciel Jones Hill seems to be OK with that.

"We're Dallas," she said. "People sue us. It's part of a cottage industry."

Indeed, Genovesi said, there will probably be a lawsuit challenging the overpass rule. Nevertheless, the committee voted to pass the measure along to the full council.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson