Future of free speech in Sacramento

A proposed law to regulate city protests is part of a nationwide wave to silence dissent. But is Sacramento unfairly, and unconstitutionally, striking back at Occupy?

illustration by Hayley Doshay

There’s a green lawn on I Street that has shriveled into ugly patch of dusty gray dirt. A few disheveled activists stand on the soil behind a folding table, waving thin pamphlets at pedestrians or reading dog-eared law books. This is what passersby see now at historic City Hall: Occupy Sacramento, or what’s left of it after the group moved on from Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Occupy crossed the street earlier this year and resurrected itself on City Hall’s front lawn after a federal judge upheld Sacramento’s park curfew in July. For months, its members have claimed the downtown plot as their new home. But now, the city wants to pass a new ordinance that would evict them.

The new ordinance would force some protesters to buy a permit and hold rallies during certain hours—rules that activists claim are unconstitutional.

A vote on the future of free speech in Sacramento will go down in the coming weeks. But until then, it’s a showdown between city officials, who say proposed changes to regulate protests have been a long time coming, and Occupy activists, who counter that the new rules are part of an unfair, nationwide effort to curb protests.

New email trails obtained by SN&R show that the city has been planning these changes for a long time. But sources inside City Hall also claim that the formerly green lawn on I Street has motivated city leaders to make sweeping changes sooner rather than later.

City officials swear the law isn’t directed at Occupy Sacramento. Instead, they claim staff members started talking about new rules way back in January 2011, long before Occupy protesters flooded into Cesar Chavez.

Civil-rights advocates scoff at these claims. They believe the new law is just another way for the city to ignore freedom of speech.

“You have to look at it in context,” says Mark Merin, an attorney who represented several Occupy members who were cited and arrested at protests. “The timing of the ordinance, after only the Occupy Sacramento folks have been using the space, suggests that it’s targeted at them.”

City council will vote on the ordinance in early September, and several council members have voiced support for the proposal, including Steve Cohn, who contends the new rules simply level the playing field for demonstrators.

“You have to have certain restrictions to respect the rights of everyone,” Cohn says.

But opponents aren’t buying it. And now the Internet is paying attention. An SN&R story about the proposed ordinance (“Sacramento inches closer to banning its Occupy protesters. And sponge baths.” by Christopher Arns, SN&R Frontlines, August 16) blew up on the popular website Reddit last month, drawing more than 270 comments on the city’s plans.

Some trashed Sacramento’s leaders: “They seem to believe that freedom is a 9 to 5 proposition, don’t they?” wrote one user.

But others thought Sacramento had the right to restrict access to City Hall. “We vest them with responsibility for maintaining public spaces,” wrote another user, “and to some extent they may be responsible for regulating to ensure public space remains accessible to everyone.”

For local activists who have watched the city respond to Occupy protests since last October, something sinister is surely afoot. They believe this new law mirrors what’s happening across the country as state and local governments pass new laws targeting Occupy and activist groups. And they say the First Amendment is in jeopardy.

Governments strike back

After Occupy Wall Street inspired hundreds of spin-offs last fall, public officials around the country responded by cracking down on the movement.

In January, New Jersey banned having rallies of 10 people or more without a permit. The state of Tennessee passed a law in February that outlawed camping on public lands. And this summer, Idaho proposed rules that would define rallies as two or more people and banned protests outside of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Lawmakers have consistently denied targeting Occupy protesters. But Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, believes the timing of these new rules is suspicious, because many governments already have regulations against camping or littering in public spaces. State by state, the desire for tougher laws was “clearly triggered by the presence of an Occupy protest,” Lye says.

Most local and state governments in California have rules for public demonstrations. Section 407 of the state’s Penal Code forbids unlawful assembly, defined as when “two or more persons assemble together to do an unlawful act, or do a lawful act in a violent, boisterous, or tumultuous manner.” Section 594 bans graffiti, but gives ample room to prosecute anyone using chalk on public sidewalks.

At the California state Capitol, protesters must obtain a permit at least 10 days before holding an event and can only use wooden, handheld signs that measure smaller than 30 inches.

Sacramento also requires permits for special events in city parks and streets, regulating everything from amplified sound to helicopter landings.

But the city’s brain trust recently thought fresh guidelines were needed just for City Hall. Now, if the proposed law passes, activists will only be allowed to protest in the plaza between historic City Hall and new City Hall. Chalk on the sidewalk will be banned. Rallies with signs, tables or amplified sound will need a permit and can only take place between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Spontaneous protests will be allowed without a permit, but anyone using a portable table would have to stay in two small areas near the sidewalk.

The questions many are asking is, “Why now?” and “Who are they targeting?”

Occupy showdown

Certainly not Occupy Sacramento, say Sacto officials, who claim the new rules are actually old news.

According to Rhonda Lake, the city’s facilities and real-property superintendent, the plan was first hatched in January 2011, nearly 10 months before Occupy protesters would swarm Cesar Chavez Plaza. At the time, Lake says she wanted rules for demonstrations in the new plaza between Sacramento’s two City Hall buildings, which is called Sa’Cumn’e Plaza, to help clarify things for future rally leaders.

Linda Tucker, a city spokeswoman, said staffers have actually been thinking about the new rules for six years.

“What staff realized is when we moved into City Hall in 2006, with its unique plaza between old and new City Hall, the plaza became increasingly popular as a requested event site,” Tucker said in a statement last week. “Therefore, it became apparent that we needed to address requests in a fair and consistent manner for all groups who may want to use it, and we took the first step toward that end in early 2011.”

The paper trail checks out. On January 28, 2011, Lake sent an email to Mark Prestwich, an assistant to the city manager, and described a meeting with other staff members “to discuss developing a policy on use of the Plaza area between Historic and New City Hall.”

Seems simple enough—according to a copy of the email obtained by SN&R, Lake says the proposed ordinance was already in the pipeline before Occupy Sacramento.

But there’s more to the story.

Steve Crouch, a union representative from Stationary Engineers Local 39, thought the law might keep his organization from rallying at City Hall. He says in August, while attending a council hearing on the ordinance, a staffer told him not to worry: City honchos were only trying to regulate certain kinds of events.

“Initially, I thought they were targeting us,” Crouch says. “I haven’t seen any other demonstration down there other than us and the Occupy group.”

That’s what local activists have said all along, argued Sacramento activist Cres Vellucci. He cited the law’s oddly specific provisions, which ban random activities such as washing dishes or clothes without a permit. The law also forbids destroying City Hall’s lawn.

“Do you think if these folks weren’t there, the city would do this?” asks Joshua Kaizuka, a defense attorney who has represented Occupy members arrested in Sacramento, including anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

City flack aren’t giving anything away. Only one official, Councilman Jay Schenirer, acknowledged that Occupy protesters at City Hall have influenced the proposed ordinance.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily specifically directed at Occupy Sacramento,” says Schenirer, who plans on voting for the law. “I do think they’ve brought the issue to light.”

If council members approve the ordinance later this month, Merin contends that protesters might test it.

“The way that these things get tested is that somebody will just violate the ordinance,” he says, “then the officers have to decide if they’re going to cite the person or arrest them.”

Occupy legal showdown, indeed.