Sunday, September 24, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Sunday, September 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ban on Dallas Protest Signs Fought in Federal

DALLAS (CN) - Dallas protesters have filed a second challenge - this time in federal court - to a city ordinance that bans protest signs within 75 feet of a highway.

Paul Heller, Leslie Harris, Deborah Beltan, Gary Staurd, Diane Baker and Mavis Belisle first sued the city in Dallas County District Court in April, arguing the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague.

That suit stemmed from a January protest where the plaintiffs stood the corner of Mockingbird Lane and the elevated service road of North Central Expressway in January and held signs that read "I [heart] the Bill of Rights" and "I love the First Amendment."

The protesters claimed police officers cited them for violating the ordinance after being warned to put the signs down or risk arrest.

"Plaintiffs were all criminally cited by defendant for allegedly violating Dallas City Ordinance 28-158.1," the protester's new 19-page federal complaint states. "However, some of the plaintiffs were actually cited under other Dallas city ordinances for either solicitation (also known as panhandling) or advertisement. It is undisputed that none of the plaintiffs were either soliciting or panhandling." (Parentheses in complaint.)

The city removed the protesters' first suit to federal court, where U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis issued a temporary injunction against Dallas on April 18. This allowed their protest of the George W. Bush Presidential Library opening to go forward between April 22 and April 25, just 100 yards from the site of their original protest.

"Judge Solis found that plaintiffs demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their First Amendment challenges to the Dallas ordinance," the new complaint states. "Judge Solis reached this determination after testimony from the chief of law enforcement for defendant demonstrated through live sworn testimony that she could not clearly explain what qualified as a 'sign' or what it meant to 'display' a sign or how defendant arrived at its determination that access roads are covered under the Dallas ordinance."

They continue: "No traffic accidents or other safety issues occurred during plaintiff's political protects. During criminal proceedings in this case, defendant was unable to provide any 'statement of purpose' for the ordinance."

However, before Solis could enter a final scheduling order for the first lawsuit, Dallas agreed to remand the suit back to state court. And after he entered the remand order, the city filed to dismiss in state court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

So the group refiled its suit in U.S. District Court in Dallas October 2.

"Defendant did not inform plaintiffs or Judge Solis that they believed the state court lacked subject matter jurisdiction prior to remand or that under its interpretation of state law, federal court was the only available forum where plaintiffs' civil rights claims could be fully litigated," the protesters say in their complaint.

They also filed an emergency motion for relief from judgment with Solis, requesting that the judge vacate the remand order and reinstate the case. He has yet to rule on that motion.

Although the protesters successfully demonstrated at the library opening, they say they the continued enforcement of the ordinance "has caused them to avoid protesting in Dallas despite their First Amendment right to hold political signs on a public sidewalk," the complaint states.

"Sidewalks are customarily considered the quintessential public forum for First Amendment purposes," the protesters add.

Attorneys for the city of Dallas did not respond to requests for comment.

The protesters seek compensatory damages and declaratory and injunctive relief. They are represented by Bruce Anton with Sorrels Udashen of Dallas.

Follow @davejourno
Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.