A free speech ban on overpass roadways in the City of Dallas ended this week when a U.S. District Court ruled it unconstitutional.
On Monday, Sept. 21, U.S. District Court Judge David Godbey ruled in favor of the grassroots Overpasses for America (OFA) and named litigant OFA Texas state leader Valerie Villarreal in a lawsuit the group filed last year. The judge awarded the $1.00 per plaintiff damages requested in the legal documents as “recognition of defendant’s violation” of the First Amendment” under City of Dallas ordinance #29244 of city code Chapter 28.
“The nominal damages award represents a legal determination that plaintiffs suffered a deprivation of constitutional rights,” the final consent judgment stated. In addition to the total of $2.00 in plaintiff damages, the city will pay approximately $25,000 in plantiffs’ attorneys’ fees. The loss meant the City of Dallas acknowledged its ban on overpass roadway protests was unconstitutional.
OFA, which considers itself a non-partisan group, champions constitutionally conservative causes and concerns. In 2014, Breitbart Texas reported that OFA challenged the constitutionality of the Dallas free speech ban in federal court, claiming the city council made it an offense to assemble peaceably on overpasses within the city’s limits beginning March 15, 2014. The city insisted the ban prevented signs from distracting motorists. The City of Dallas threatened violators with possible criminal charges and fines up to $500 for exercising their First Amendment rights, the lawsuit noted.
A 1989 city ordinance which prohibited the carrying or display of a sign on, over, or within 75 feet of a roadway or highway if the signs intended to attract a driver’s attention originated the case. In 2013, six individuals who attempted to demonstrate peacefully during the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the Southern Methodist University (SMU) campus in Dallas, filed a similar lawsuit in the same U.S. District Court. It ended in an injunction.
OFA indicated it held 75 to 100 “free speech assemblies” in the city and none resulted in any public or traffic safety issue, including a March 1, 2014 assemblage on a Dallas North Tollway overpass, coordinated with the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas director of Homeland Security. However, the free speech start date, March 15, coincided with an OFA scheduled event. “Plaintiffs, however, were informed that they would not be allowed to hold their free speech assembly because the Dallas Police Department was now obligated to enforce the City of Dallas’ free speech ban,” the complaint stated.
Courthouse News Service reported that Jerad Najvar, an attorney for OFA in Houston, said he was glad the City Council majority that approved the ordinance “now realizes its error.”
He added: “The problem is that these concerns were raised before the ordinance was passed, and my clients’ rights have been violated.” Najvar noted that the same city council that passed the ordinance “ignoring free speech objections, would not have repealed it but for our lawsuit.” He said that the city should “certainly” be on the hook for his clients’ attorneys’ fees.
Last year, Najvar told Breitbart Texas, “Places like overpasses, where thousands of cars pass each day, have replaced the town square. Overpasses are a valuable public forum for speech, and the government can never place limits or restrictions on speech without explaining why it is necessary and constitutional. Dallas is not banning billboards as distractions to motorists, and it can’t ban signs with political messages, which are no different.”
This week he told Courthouse News Service: “People in government have an obligation to consider whether laws are constitutional before they are enacted, because not everyone is able to find a constitutional attorney.”
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.