No Women Street Vendors Here

The problem with a city official stopping an earnest young woman from giving away bottles of cold water on a hot “First Friday” evening in downtown Phoenix only grows worse with the city’s explanations.

Explaining that she was in violation of Phoenix’s mobile vending ordinance does not help. Who views free water as “vending”?

Observing that if she merely had obtained a $350 license per the ordinance in order to give away free water … well, that self-evidently does not bolster the Phoenix position.

Arguing that the woman was in violation of the ordinance primarily because “her cooler (was) located partially on the sidewalk and on private property” really renders the First Friday Free Water Faceoff game, set, match against Phoenix.

Nothing says “overbearing, hair-splitting bureaucracy” quite like a government that has legally nailed someone because her cooler partially was on private property. Even if the official merely issued the woman a warning.

Effectively, Phoenix already has lost its fight with Dana Crow-Smith, who on July 6 was bagged by Phoenix’s Neighborhood Services Department Preservation Division for giving away water near Roosevelt and First streets during First Friday.

The Phoenix City Council would do well to fix this public-relations contretemps, like, tomorrow. And we do mean by tomorrow, which is the First Friday of September, and Crow-Smith says she plans to be back, watercooler and all.

As reported by The Arizona Republic’s Emily Gersema, Crow-Smith’s story has become a viral sensation, one of those “you’re not going to believe this” stories that gets people’s dander up (fairly or not) about the nitpicking nanny state. It may not be quite a “cops bust 6-year-old’s lemonade stand” story, but it’s close.

Alas, the story actually gets worse for defenders of the Phoenix ordinance.

Crow-Smith was not just handing out bottles of cold water. She was proselytizing, preaching the word of God. Not surprisingly, Phoenix’s interference with her water giveaway also has incited a national hornet’s nest over her First Amendment right to express her Christian faith.

Crow-Smith is being defended by the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based organization that specializes in issues protecting freedom of religion. Even though there is no evidence the Phoenix official was attempting to impede her preaching, it doesn’t matter, according to attorney John Rutherford.

“If they do impede it, that’s the infringement,” he said.

The popular First Friday arts celebrations involve a complicated mishmash of street vendors, food trucks and brick-and-mortar business operators. It is not easy maintaining order, much less commercial fairness, with thousands of people spilling into the streets.

But that is more an argument for reasonable flexibility in an ordinance than against it.

Dana Crow-Smith was preaching and giving away cold water on a hot night, and she got busted for the latter. Public-relations-wise, that’s not precisely like taking out some kid’s curbside lemonade stand.

But it is close enough that the city should review its mobile-vending law in a hurry, or prepare for a whole lot more fire and brimstone flying its way.