Before Open Carry Tarrant County members and their rifles set foot in a Fort Worth Jack in the Box earlier this month, setting off a series of increasingly absurd showdowns between open-carry gun activists and national restaurant chains, its members were standing on Arlington sidewalks handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution to passing drivers.
The city of Arlington responded, first by ticketing two OCTC protesters for violating the city's ban on handing out literature to occupants of cars that are not "lawfully parked," then by rewriting the ordinance to more explicitly outlaw what the activists were doing and raise the penalty to $500.
Today, OCTC founder Kory Watkin sued, saying the ordinance is a prior restraint on his First Amendment right to free speech.
Watkins and his fellow activists have been saying this all along. In a crude way, that's the message they were trying to convey with their repeated cries of "Tyrant!" at a late April Arlington City Council meeting.
In his lawsuit, Watkins argues that there are two main flaws with the city's argument. One is that there is no credible evidence that handing a copy of the Constitution to motorists stopped at a red light poses any danger at all. OCTC has contributed to no accidents, the suit says, nor has any other political rally or charitable event save for once in 1997. The other is that the city has singled out open-carry activists for prosecution.
"No event precipitated this sudden interest in these restrictions other than the Open Carry events and public demonstrations," the suit says, "irrespective of the fact that the Shriners and firefighters have been standing directly in the busiest streets with the blessing of the City Council for decades."
This, the suit argues, has had a "chilling effect" on OCTC's demonstrations and violates the constitutional requirement that any restriction on free speech be content neutral.
Arlington, naturally, disagrees. The original ordinance was put in place in 1994, roughly two decades before the modern open carry movement came into existence, says assistant city attorney Robert Fugate. And it has nothing to do with guns.
"The purpose of the ordinance is to prohibit the interaction of pedestrians and vehicles at high-traffic intersections in Arlington."
The changes that were enacted in April, Fugate says, broadened the law so that it applied regardless of what drivers were being handed.
As evidence of the law's constitutionality -- or at the very least as a prediction of the city's presumptive court victory -- Fugate points to a 2007 opinion from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans involving Houston Chronicle vendors banned by League City from selling newspapers at any intersection with a traffic light. The court ruled at the time that League City had a legitimate public safety interest in keeping vendors away from busy intersections.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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