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TRI In The News

Phoenix Water-Giveaway Dispute Goes Viral

From The Arizona Republic

Original article available here

Once word got out that Phoenix officials had stopped a Peoria woman from giving away water during an event in downtown Phoenix, it triggered a tsunami of commentary in the blogosphere. A Virginia-based Christian-rights organization even threatened to sue the city on her behalf.

The Rutherford Institute has demanded the city apologize to Dana Crow-Smith, who said Phoenix officials violated her constitutional rights at the First Friday Art Walk on July 6 when they told her she needed a vendor's permit to hand out cold bottles of water on a private lot at 919 N. First St.

Crow-Smith, who had said she was also publicly expressing her Christian faith while she handed out the water, could not be reached for comment.

Bloggers and conservative political groups are outraged over the incident. A group called "We Like Small Government" posted a link to a news story about the incident and invited its Facebook fans to "LIKE THIS if you think overbearing permitting requirements such as this should be repealed."

The Rutherford Institute said Crow-Smith believed she was standing mostly on the public sidewalk where she thought she wouldn't have needed a vendor's permit, but she may have inadvertently stepped onto the private lot.

A city memo about the incident said Crow-Smith was violating the "mobile vendor" ordinance, which requires a vendor operating on private property to obtain a city permit for "vending, selling, serving, displaying, offering for sale or giving away goods, wares, or merchandise or food from either a mobile vending unit or a mobile food vending unit."

City Manager David Cavazos said it's a "fairness" issue for the permitted merchants selling their art, food and other wares at First Fridays.

Rutherford Institute attorney Doug Drury wrote a letter to Phoenix officials on Aug. 9, saying Crow-Smith's water giveaway was legal since she was giving passers-by water, not selling it. "Ms. Crow-Smith's conduct was a manifestation of her sincerely held religious beliefs," he added.

He then demanded the city apologize and assure Crow-Smith that officials won't interfere again with her water-distribution effort. He also asked the city to train law-enforcement officials "on proper enforcement of the city's code ... and pay proper regard to citizens' exercise of First Amendment rights."

Crow-Smith won't get an apology from the city anytime soon. City officials are standing by their inspector.

In a response to Drury on Aug. 17, Assistant City Attorney Janis Haug pointed out the inspector gave Crow-Smith a warning instead of issuing a citation or arresting her over the potential violation.

"In the future, to avoid any misunderstanding and so that Ms. Crow-Smith may fully and safely exercise her constitutional rights, we encourage Ms. Crow-Smith to exercise her rights within the confines of the public sidewalk," Haug wrote.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio disagreed with the city's decision to stop Crow-Smith.

"That's a freedom-of-speech issue," he said. "They (citizens) have a right to do that."

The Rutherford Institute recently had another disagreement with the city. It defended a Phoenix pastor, Michael Hashem Salman, when the city jailed him after accusing him of repeated building-safety-code violations for hosting large church gatherings in his private home.

In that case, the Rutherford Institute also accused the city of violating his constitutional rights. The city denied the accusation, saying it was a safety matter.

Salman's story continues to evolve. Last week, the Arizona Attorney General's Office obtained an eight-count indictment that accuses him of fraud, forgery and theft to illegally obtain state health-care benefits for himself and his family.