One word delays street harassment bill

39th-and-mainWhat a difference a word makes, or may not make.

After a sharp debate, the city council on Thursday voted to change one word in a proposed law against street harassment and sent it back to public safety committee.

Councilman Ed Ford led the successful effort to change “frightening” to “threatening.”

He argued that courts have upheld the threatening language in laws but not the other word.

Councilman John Sharp, a co-sponsor of the ordinance and chair of the public safety committee, argued the change greatly weakens the law intended to protect bicyclists, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs, blind people and their guide dogs.

Mayor Sly James, a lawyer, said, “If I’m threatened, I’m automatically frightened.”

Councilman Jim Glover said, “I think the word threatening is broad enough to include the word frightening.”

If the law passes, Kansas City would join Independence, Columbia and St. Louis in having such laws.

BikeWalkKC, the Whole Person, AARP and many other advocates have argued such a law is needed because of widespread harassment that is discouraging biking and walking.

The Kansas City law, as it stands amended, would forbid acting with the purpose of threatening or injuring.

It also forbids throwing objects at the victims or service animals or sounding a horn or other loud sounds toward them with those purposes.

Ford said he was also concerned that “frightening” would be unconstitutional because of free speech rights.

“At what point is a motorist allowed to honk at a pedestrian or a bicyclist under the ordinance?” he asked.

The honk might be a warning, he said, and “a warning may be frightening for a pedestrian.”

It might also be because of jaywalking or some other unwise behavior by the walker or biker, Ford said.

Sharp countered, “How do you threaten someone by going up to two feet from them and blasting your horn?”

Such an act could frighten people so they injure themselves and others, Sharp said.

The word change passed 6 to 4 and the amended ordinance was sent back to committee for more work.

Councilwoman Cindy Circo, also a co-sponsor of the ordinance, said it could be fine tuned in committee and returned to the full council for final passage next week.

“There’s a tidbit of logic in both sides,” she said.

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