For those who think free speech is an absolute right that shouldn't be lightly trifled with, this morning's City Council meeting offered an unpleasant spectacle.
It wasn't so much that the council voted 10-4 to pass an ordinance outlawing "conduct that is intended to distract the attention of motorists" (i.e. protesting) on the city's highways and service roads; in some ways, it's an improvement over the old rule, currently being challenged in federal court, which put in place a 75-foot, sign-free buffer zone around freeways.
What was troubling was the way supporters of the measure twisted themselves in knots to present themselves as defenders of public safety.
"If we simply repeal [the existing anti-protest ordinance] with the possibility that we may be able to settle a lawsuit, we leave our officers exposed to a danger without any way of enforcing against that danger," said Councilwoman Vonciel Hill, responding to the notion that the measure should simply be abandoned. "To say that we should not assist our police officers because we may get sued is simply disingenuous."
To be clear, the ordinance isn't about protecting cops. Not even Police Chief David Brown was saying that. "This is about protecting people driving on the freeway, driving 55 miles per hour, and keeping them from hurting themselves or hurting someone else," he offered.
Sheffie Kadane, who chairs the council's public safety committee, gets it.
"I guarantee you, I'm driving down a freeway and a sign is hanging over a bridge, I'm going to try and see what it says," Kadane said. "That's human nature, and that's dangerous."
So does Dwaine Caraway, who offered a hypothetical scenario in which a protester accidentally dropped a sign from an overpass onto the freeway below, causing a tragic pileup. "This is not anti-protest; this is pro-safety," he said.
Yet Brown, pressed by Councilman Phillip Kingston, could offer no instance in which a protest had caused a traffic accident. "That's because the answer is zero," Kingston offered. "It's not there."
Besides, the ordinance isn't limited to people hanging large signs from overpasses. It also includes people wearing costumes or any other "clothing, attire or accessory intended to attract or seek the attention of the public" basically any time they are visible from the highway
Kingston, who was joined by Adam Medrano, Scott Griggs and Carolyn Davis in voting against the measure, declared it "another situation in which the city of Dallas has a regulation but no problem."
"This is an ordinance we don't need," he said. "No matter how carefully we craft it to make it content-neutral, it's going to be perceived by people who want to protest as being against free speech. ... It sure looks like that to me as well."
Indeed, Dallas police never hesitated in the past to use the 75-foot buffer to crack down on protests, even when they posed no danger to drivers on the highway.
That was the case with the George W. Bush Library protesters who were arrested along the Central Expressway service road, and it was the case when libertarian provocateur Alex Jones was shooed from the front steps of the Federal Reserve on the eve of November's JFK commemoration.
On some level, the council members understand that. Councilman Rick Callahan expressed what one suspects is the collective id near the end of the discussion.
"I think the primary goals of the protester is to be arrested and taken to jail and to get on CNN and Fox News," he said. The new ordinance will "allow police department to get them to jail a little bit quicker."
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