Free-speech activist pushes Kansas town to reconsider curfew ordinance

Friday, July 2, 1999

Keen Umbehr distinctly remembers the night last summer when a Manhattan,
Kan., police officer threatened to ticket his eldest son, Josh, for breaking the
city's curfew law.

The police officer had pulled over Josh, then 17, for driving with a broken
taillight. During the stop, the officer told the boy to get home immediately or
be ticketed for breaking the city's curfew law.

Umbehr also remembers being incensed because he had given his son permission
to be out that night. Josh, he said, wasn't cruising or vandalizing the city. He
was simply taking his two younger brothers from the family home in nearby Alma
to stay at their other home in Manhattan.

Because of that incident, Umbehr, a veteran of one Supreme Court case on the
First Amendment rights of government contractors, said he felt it was time to
challenge curfews. Curfews, he says, violate a young person's First Amendment
rights to speak and assemble.

“I thought to myself, 'At what point are we going to answer the question on
the constitutionality of curfews,'” Umbehr said. “The
Supreme Court has dodged it, and the state courts have dodged it.”

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Umbehr asked Manhattan
officials to reconsider the city's curfew, which restricts minors from being
unaccompanied in any public place at any time between noon and 5 a.m.

Umbehr's effort may have paid off because city leaders are planning to
reconsider the curfew law next week. During a meeting on July 6, the Manhattan
City Commission is to consider a motion to repeal the current curfew ordinance
and replace it with a revised one.

“Somebody suggested that the present one had constitutional defects,” City
Attorney Bill Frost said, “We're
attempting to change it to address those concerns.”

The law, in part, reads: “The fact that a child, unaccompanied by parent,
guardian, or other person having legal custody, is found upon any street, alley
or public place after 12 p.m. or before 5 a.m. of the following day, shall be
prima facie evidence that the child is there unlawfully and that no reasonable
excuse exists therefore.”

Eddie Lorenzo, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri,
says the current law creates many unreasonable restrictions on the city's youth.
He notes that it technically prohibits young people from participating, without
parental supervision, in late evening or early morning church services,
after-school events and political functions.

“For example, Manhattan had a recent debate on placing the Ten Commandments
at City Hall,” Lorenzo said. “That debate lasted until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Students would not be able to attend that under the current curfew law.”

But Lorenzo says the current law is similar to curfew laws in other cities
and that “many of them are overbroad in that they prohibit young people from
exerting their First Amendment rights.”

The proposed curfew would run from 12:01 to 5 a.m. Monday through Friday and
1 to 5 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The revised proposal also allows exemptions
for minors involved in emergencies, employment, church, school or civic
activities or exercising their First Amendment rights.

Lorenzo said the changes would likely pass constitutional muster.

“I'm happy with the way they've written it,” he said. “Hopefully it will be

Although he agrees that the proposed curfew is less restrictive, Umbehr says
he wishes the city would consider doing away with curfews entirely.

“I plan to be at the meeting and ask that they don't institute a new curfew
policy right away,” he said. “And let's see what happens.”