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Portland Defends Median Ban Ordinance in Federal Court
11/19/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Maine civil liberties advocates and others were in federal court in Portland today to challenge a measure enacted by the city earlier this year designed to curb pedestrian activity on traffic medians. Opponents of the ordinance say the measure is too sweeping and prevents the city's homeless population from soliciting donations, while also curbing free speech by preventing political protestors from standing in medians holding signs. Supporters of the ban say it's a safety measure. Tom Porter has more.

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Councilor Ed Suslovic, who testified on behalf of the city in Tuesday's expedited one-day trial, says the ordinance is about thing only: safety.

"My concern, the city's concern, all along has been about protecting human life," Suslovic says. "If someone is standing on a median strip, which we know is an unsafe place, that's what we're trying to reduce."

Suslovic says the City Council had been receiving a lot complaints from people alarmed by the increasing number of panhandlers standing in Portland's traffic medians for much of the day.

"The majority of the complaints that I got were, 'You people need to do something, someone's going to get killed one of these days,'" Suslovic says. "And I feel that it's really been luck, frankly, that we've gone this far without having someone killed on a median strip. So the focus predominantly was safety, safety, safety."

"We brought this case on behalf of three residents of Portland, who have regularly used the medians within the city to exercise their free speech rights," says Rachel Healy, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Healy says the city ordinance - which was introduced in August - is unconstitutional. "We're really concerned that the ordinance passed by the City Council was overly broad in banning anyone from being in any median in the city of Portland for any reason, other than crossing the street."

In October, the city agreed to stop enforcing the ban until the court case is resolved - except with respect to individuals who are obviously under the influence of alcohol or drugs and are posing a threat to public safety.

United States District Judge George Singal is expected to make a decision early next year, once he's read the final arguments from both sides.

Photo:  Patty Wight


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