The Kansas City Council unanimously approved a measure Thursday to clamp down on people who intimidate pedestrians, cyclists and others using Kansas City’s streets and sidewalks.
But the ordinance won’t stop lewd, crude comments because it’s a balancing act to protect both cyclists and free speech.
“We’re not going to pass any law that unjerkifies someone who wants to be a jerk,” City Attorney Bill Geary told the council at a recent discussion of the ordinance. “Yelling crude things at people is part of living in America.”
Still, testimony before the City Council in recent weeks demonstrated that joggers, bicyclists, those in wheelchairs and others are subjected on a daily basis to threatening language, loud honks, thrown objects, swerving cars and other harassment, which has prompted the proposal before the council.
On Thursday the council endorsed a revision to the original ordinance to deal with the harassment without running afoul of free-speech protections. The council’s action followed a strenuous debate last week, in which some council members worried that a loosely worded ordinance could subject the city to needless litigation.
A previous version of the ordinance prohibited anyone from “frightening” cyclists or others using the streets, but critics were concerned that the word was problematic because someone could frighten a cyclist or walker to warn them against danger, without intending any harm.
The revised version prohibits anyone from “intimidating” a walker, cyclist or others by threatening the person, throwing an object, swerving a vehicle in the person’s direction or placing the victim in apprehension of immediate physical injury. Violators could face a fine or up to six months in jail.
Assistant City Attorney Katherine Chandler said she was confident the ordinance as written does not violate free speech rights and is constitutional.
Advocates for BikeWalkKC and other organizations who had pushed for the anti-harassment ordinance endorsed the revised language.
That doesn’t mean going after violators will be easy. City Prosecutor Keith Ludwig said victims will still have to help police identify the violators, including providing driver’s licenses and other evidence, and each case will have to stand on the facts.