The new sidewalk ordinance the Anchorage Assembly passed a week ago could be headed for its first challenge.
When the law takes effect on December 22nd, it would make it illegal to sit or lie down on downtown sidewalks. The assembly voted 7-4 in favor of the ordinance last Tuesday, following a controversy over John Martin, a homeless man who has been protesting the mayor’s homeless policies outside city hall.
Members of Occupy Anchorage say they hope to stage a protest large enough to force the assembly to reconsider its vote.
“Our idea is to sit on the sidewalk during the solstice,” says Bryan DeHusson. “So that at midnight, when the law goes into effect, we have as many people as we can sitting outside of City Hall, in single file, so we’re not actually blocking pedestrian traffic.”
DeHusson says plans are still in the talking stage, but television and radio talk show host Shannyn Moore says she’ll do what she can to promote a demonstration on December 22nd.
On KOAN radio, Moore told her listeners about a column she wrote in the Anchorage Daily News calling for a protest.
“Basically, I just said I never wanted to sit on the sidewalk so bad in my life,” said Moore. “Now if they could only clear enough of the snow, so that they could actually sit on the sidewalk.”
Moore says Martin is not the perfect poster child for freedom of speech. “But he’s an American, and if he doesn’t have those rights, who’s next on the list?”
Mayor Dan Sullivan says the new ordinance strikes a balance between public safety and freedom of speech.
“You can picket. You can stand on a corner. There’s absolutely no infringement on First Amendment rights,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan says the law is modeled after Seattle’s sidewalk policy, which has already been tested in the courts. The mayor also believes the new ordinance has widespread support.
“I’m out in the community constantly, and the remarks have been overwhelmingly positive. People like the rule of law. They like to know there’s somebody out there looking out for them and their rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska says the new ordinance may be vulnerable to a court challenge for two reasons.
First, says the ACLU, it’s more restrictive than the Seattle law. And second, it appears to be narrowly focused on addressing the controversy surrounding Martin.
Mayor Sullivan says that’s not the case. “He was really just a symbol of somebody who wanted to take over a public space for his own private use. It could have been John Martin or Joe Smith.”
One of the Sullivan’s opponents in the upcoming mayor race, Assembly Member Paul Honeman, says he’s troubled by Sullivan’s role in getting the measure passed.
“No one can tell me convincingly that this wasn’t directed at one individual,” said Honeman. “And as much as Mr. Martin is not my cup of tea, he’s a citizen of this municipality and this state and this country.
“I’ve never been more angry or disappointed in our Assembly than this past Tuesday night when this ordinance passed,” said Honeman, who hopes the assembly will revisit the measure.
Sullivan says he’s disappointed that Honeman, a former police officer, could not understand how the measure protects public safety.
“I think the most telling thing was this summer was watching a lady trip over Mr. Martin as she tried to navigate down the street with a map. She was clearly a tourist in Anchorage,” said Sullivan, who says the incident was witnessed by the head of the Downtown Anchorage Partnership.
Honeman believes the new ordinance could potentially hurt public safety, because it will be difficult to enforce it consistently and with impartiality.
“I believe there are going to be some challenges, based on how the language is written. And I’m concerned that our municipality and our taxpayers will have to defend what I consider to be a turkey,” said Honeman.
The ACLU says it’s made no decision about a legal challenge. It’s watching the implementation of the new policy.
As for the man at the center of the controversy, John Martin, he continued his protest on Monday, standing across the street from City Hall with his dog Shiloh, who was seated next to him.
Come December 22nd, Shiloh will still be able to sit on the sidewalk, but it’ll be against the law for his master to do the same.