Sidewalks - public or private property?

To the best of my knowledge, all cities in this region claim some sort of easement, extending from the center line of any street to (usually) 25 feet on either side. This allows room for sidewalks, drainage accesses, potential road expansion, etc. (AFAIK, this is fairly standard practice throughout the U.S.) It’s my understanding that such areas (e.g., sidewalks) are considered “public property” rather than “private property” controlled by the owner of the lot. For instance, I’ve frequently read about protesters who, while they can be barred from private property such as driveways, parking lots, and buildings, can not be prevented from protesting on the public sidewalks in front of a private property.

Contrarily, my employer seems to think that they own the public sidewalks surrounding and interspersed between their properties and have the right to mandate behaviour of all persons thereon. They’ve stated that policies apply to ‘all persons on campus’ and specifically name ‘public areas’ and ‘sidewalks’ as covered by said policies. It is also possible that they’re only referring to internal sidewalks between buildings, and are using ambiguous language in an effort to stretch their control by intimidation to beyond the legal limits.

I don’t think they can actually do this legally, but I’m not sure where to go to find out. (I’m sure they will do their best to enforce it regardless of legality, unless one has the knowledge and willingness to argue.)

Can anyone point me in the right direction for getting solid information on this? There are a multitude of gov’t offices and I’m not sure which one to ask.

Disclaimer: I realize that most of you are not attorneys, most of you are not in my area, and none of you are MY attorney, and I wouldn’t look for actual legal advice on the Web anyway.

Generally speaking, sidewalks along public streets are constructed within the municipal right-of-way and are, therefore, public space. Sidewalks can, and often do, leave the public right-of-way and traverse private property (your campus example). If that’s the case, the sidewalks in the interior of the property are not public space and the property owner can control what happens on them.

Call your Dept. of Public Works (or whoever deals with streets, sidewalks, etc.).

Your County Auditor has information on the extents of all private and public land parcels. He needs this for tax purposes. You will be able to determine from his plat records the extents of any public right of way, as well as utility easements. Many County Auditors have made this information accessible via the internet in recent years.

Which region? If you can tell us where you are, we may be able to find specifically who you need to ask.

Former city employee here. I would find it very hard to imagine a city in which sidewalks were not public property.

Any incursion into or onto the sidewalk technically has to be approved by the appropriate licensing body. Restaurants, for example, cannot simply put out chairs and tables; a license must be granted. Same for sidewalk sales. Signboards probably require a license but I doubt that anyone bothers enforcing this, unless they become a hazard.

OTOH, cities can require that property owners maintain sidewalks, to keep them free of snow, for example. This is true even if the city provides snow plowing. And a city can enjoin protests that block sidewalks or access to buildings.

So the OP’s employer may indeed just be referring to internal sidewalks. No mention of what control is being placed on these sidewalks so it’s hard to know what if anything is crossing the line.

The controlling jurisdiction may be either the city or the county. Either one will have a legal office, a planning department, a licensing board or some other similar body that would know what the controlling sidewalk law is. Not to mention a centralized help number that will steer you to the right place.

I don’t disagree with the general information in any of the above responses, but the OP mentions that his employer has a “campus”. Is your employer a college, or are you using the term in a “business campus” sort of way?

If the former, it is fairly common for colleges and universities to have been granted police power, in at least a limited way, that sometimes extends beyond the land that it actually owns.

What, specifically, is your employer trying to prohibit? Is it speech-related? If so, it is also important to know if your employer is a public (governmental) or private entity.

And under First Amendment jurisprudence, it is possible for property that is privately owned to become a public arena for purposes of free speech.

The shopping mall cases? Yeah, that’s true sometimes, at least in some states (or federal circuits), but it’s a fairly limited concept. We did a thread on this somewhere.

Here you go:

Oklahoma, public college campus, prohibiting smoking. By the wording in the policy, it would appear that a local resident smoking a pipe while walking down the sidewalk on the edge of the campus can be hassled (although they don’t specify what would happen). It certainly states (if read literally) that an employee can be disciplined for, e.g., smoking a cigarette during lunch while walking down an adjoining public street to an off-campus restaurant.

(Sorry to be so boring. If it was a free-speech issue, I’d have called the local ACLU chapter for advice. :slight_smile: )

The County Auditor info doesn’t seem to be online. I’ll see what the Public Works and or City Planning offices have to say. (I’m still giggling at the idea of a centralized help number that would know whom to ask among all the city/county agencies & offices. I’ve never had much luck getting to the right department within one of the city offices via the front desk unless I have a name/extension - they never seem to know who does what or which area your question falls under.)

Thanks for the replies!

You might wanna try your County, or municipal Public Utilities Engineer, too. Since that’s the department which will have to approve all utility work in the public right of way, they should have records of the right of ways.

If you are an at-will employee, it may not matter whether the University owns the street/sidewalk. You can be fired simply because you’re a smoker, even if you only did it in your own back yard.

Of course, if the policy only prohibits smoking on campus, then the definition of campus becomes important, and thus (perhaps) the ownership of the road you’re interested in.

Well, first: don’t smoke. Anytime, anywhere. If you do you deserve everything that happens to you. And I’ll be happy to come down and testify that you knew it was both wrong and illegal and yet you smoked in willful defiance of the law. :smiley:

From the description, these specific policies are contained within a larger set of campus policies and statements. These often have a section at the beginning that contain definitions that apply to the rest of the document. Perhaps a definition of “sidewalks” or “campus” can be found there.

Well, next: Y’know, that’s why I didn’t include the policy subject in the OP. If I wanted to debate the evils of smoking, I would have jumped into one of the umpteen recent threads in the Pit and GD. This is GQ and not the place for such.

If the policy stated that no employees would be allowed to smoke, period, then I wouldn’t have asked the question I did. If the policy stated that no employees would be allowed to smoke during working hours, then I might have asked whether an off-the-clock lunch hour should be considered as part of “working hours”. Since the policy says neither, and in fact instructs employees as to certain requirements when returning from off-campus smoke breaks, that is quite obviously NOT what they’re doing. I am well aware of the implications of “at will” employment, thank you. As I specifically pointed out in the OP, the policy refers to “all persons”, not just employees, and activities “on campus”, naming sidewalks as one element thereof.

I do note that they (and you) fail to mention the fact that a person can smoke legally in a private car, even when on non-smoking property, as decided by a previous court case that determined (in accordance with existing precedent) that a car is private property and as such is exempt from policies set by employers for their property.

Which is why I asked about the legality of an entity enforcing organizational policies against the public on public property.

So far I haven’t found any definitions in the general policies, but such research is easier said than done here.

Public Utilities Engineer, check. Sounds like I’m back to calling all over the city trying to find out who can definitively answer my question. Ah well, no worse off than when I started. :slight_smile:


Here in Yancyville, NC (a very rural town) the OWNERS are expected to pay for a sidewalk. I’m not sure who is responsible for liability, etc.
Makes it nice for me because I walk, don’t drive.

Sorry for trying to help you. I won’t do so in the future.

I have no intention of wasting any more time with you by explaining all of my questions or comments, but I will point out one thing that you appear to be missing. If an at-will employee of an entity with rule making power is charged with violating one of its rules, and that employee defends by claiming an interpretation of that rule that varies from his employer’s interpretation, I wouldn’t want to be that employee, even his interpretation made more sense.

That good argument may help a visitor to campus arrested by campus police on one of the sidewalks you describe. A judge may listen, and dismiss the charges. You might have the same outcome if you’re arrested. Doesn’t mean you can’t be fired, if you’re an at will employee.

You appear to have be confusing a defense against a criminal claim:

with the different issue of whether an at will employee can be terminated for smoking in violation of a rule. Unless there’s a contract, collective bargaining agreement, or a civil service rule, or general state privacy statute saying otherwise (or at least giving you some due process rights allowing the employee to contest a termination, thus changing his pure at will status), an employee CAN be fired for smoking in his private car, or his private home, if his employer wants to do so. Show me your court case that says otherwise.

We’ve discussed this issue before:

and although I didn’t participate in that thread, I agree with the consensus (which includes at least one other lawyer) that such rules against smoking are legal.

In Oklahoma, jurisdiction over the sidewalks should rest with the city (Norman? Stillwater?) where the sidewalks are adjacent to university property. Of course, the campus police departments are fully commissioned agencies here so invoking the wrath of campus cops is not advised.

Now, if you’re talking about walking down Boyd Street in Norman, just cross the f*cking street and walk on the north sidewalk down to Campus Corner for lunch. :smiley:

Based on what I recall from my college summers surveying, the sidewalks aren’t even on your property, at least in the case of homes.

The property line pins are about 5-10 feet in from the curb, and define the front corners of your lot on the plat. The back pins are usually right alongside the fenceposts, depending on how much effort the fence builders took not to dig them up; sometimes they just threw them into the yard.

So in a nutshell, although you have to mow it and can improve it to some extent, the first 5-10 feet of your front yard are the city/county’s, and not yours.

You probably have easements along your back fence that are on your property too.

redtail23, you’re making this harder than it needs to be. Without the precise wording of the policies placing them in a larger context, it’s just not possible to know from your two or three word quotes whether your interpretation of them is reasonable or not. We don’t know whether they are intended to apply to all, to segments of the campus population, to campus visitors, or to casual passersby. If you cannot even say what penalties are ascribed to these policies, then it’s not even meaningful to say whether they are rules, policies, guidelines, suggestions, or wistful hopes.

You should start on campus and find someone who knows what the university’s policies are and what they mean.

If for some unexpressed reason you have cause not to do this, my advice remains: ask for help at the jurisdictional body. Do not look for a specifically named body or position, like Public Utilities Engineer. My jurisdiction had nothing with that name. Names vary tremendously from place to place.

And my bet is that if you do find someone, they will just refer you back to the university, for they certainly won’t know what the policy states, what their definition of sidewalks is, and whether without penalties this is illegal in any case.