Kill that noise: More than 50 advocacy groups shout down Sacramento City Hall attempt to limit speech

Package of ordinances would have restricted residential picketing, use of megaphones

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

Megaphones and targeted protest halted two proposed city ordinances that would have restricted both after a deeply contentious City Council meeting saw a number of dissenting community members ejected from the chambers last week.

The ordinances, part of a batch of code amendments that included new restrictions on panhandling and limits on public occupation of City Hall grounds, would limit “stationary targeted picketing within 300 feet of a residential structure,” and prohibit “devices that amplify the human voice” without a special event permit in residential areas.

The proposed restriction on free-speech tactics first surfaced a month ago, when four City Council members moved the ordinances through their Law and Legislation Committee, over the protests of labor and homelessness advocates, on July 25.

At that time, Councilman Jay Schenirer, the committee’s chair, directed city staff to work with concerned stakeholders and assured them the proposals wouldn’t be tacked onto a part of the City Council agenda that is usually approved without discussion.

“When this comes, it will not be on the consent calendar at the council,” Schenirer said.

On August 15, the package of restrictive laws resurfaced as the last item on the council’s consent calendar, though the council wasn’t being asked to adopt them—just approve their publication.

Interpretations of how the ordinances would negatively impact the work of activists were quick to spread among community organizers.

Jonah Paul, an organizer with the Sacramento chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, noted that the rules would make fighting for tenant rights difficult, given that it would criminalize protests where many on-site apartment managers work. That holds for any sort of stationary protest in much of the grid, as many downtown areas are zoned mixed-use, which includes residential spaces.

Beyond that, the restriction on vocal amplification would criminalize house shows without permits, Paul said.

Paul also noted that the ordinance’s emergence may have had something to do with a Black Lives Matter picket outside Councilman Steve Hansen’s house last fall, a sentiment shared by many community organizers. “It’s completely myopic,” Paul said the day before the August 15 council meeting. “They’re only thinking about themselves.”

Hansen, whom Steinberg credited with the ordinances, declined to comment for this story.

The Sacramento chapter of the National Lawyers Guild got more than 50 groups to sign an opposition letter after only three days of outreach. “I’m amazed that we even got the word out,” said Cres Vellucci, vice president of the Sacramento NLG.

Even the delivery of the letter proved contentious, as chapter representatives of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, ANSWER Coalition, NorCal Resist and numerous others demanded to see their council members, culminating in a brief standoff until a receptionist eventually allowed one upstairs.

The shows of resistance led Mayor Darrell Steinberg to preemptively offer a request to strike the provisions on voice amplifiers and residential “picketing” while advancing the remaining amendments. But that did little to stem more than two hours of public comment, during which community members chided the council for letting the ordinances be proposed in the first place. Many also asked that the entire package, including the panhandling restrictions, be removed. Several community members who dissented out of turn (or at the podium, in one case) were removed at Steinberg’s request.

Ultimately, the council voted to send the amendments back to the Law and Legislation Committee without the two portions relating to noise and picketing. The package will be reevaluated and may be broken into separate proposals, with a chance of appearing on the August 22 council agenda.

As council drew closer to a vote, Councilman Larry Carr asked Schenirer how many people offered public comment on the amendments before they made it to the agenda. The answer was three.

“Obviously, there are more than three people interested in this,” Carr said.