Protest this law

A little more than a year ago, we at SN&R used this space to bemoan the stupendous overkill of police presence deployed in Sacramento at the 2003 Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology. We couldn’t believe the 2,000 riot-gear-clad police who lined the streets of downtown, the droning helicopters circling above and the armed intimidation that had invaded our town.

Spooked by an online indication that hoards of violent protesters were going to descend on the city and replay the “Battle of Seattle” (where some violent protesters disrupted the World Trade Organization conference in 1999), the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and the police overreacted while the Sacramento City Council passed a concurrent emergency measure to deal with potential troublemakers.

Well, the protesters—many dressed as winged butterflies and giant bug-eyed vegetables—did little to deserve such paranoia. Protests were mostly peaceful, despite actions of some “Black Bloc” anarchists. The law-enforcement show of force basically was deemed an oppressive and expensive overkill.

But the story doesn’t end there, because the “parade ordinance” that restricts what protesters can wear and carry at demonstrations is back on the table again. Last month, city officials presented a slightly altered draft of it to the council, and—make no mistake—it is still full of objectionable restrictions to basic rights. Despite a public forum packed with people opposing the ordinance, city-council members such as Steve Cohn and Ray Tretheway remained unmoved, still dedicated to the passage of a slightly amended ordinance.

They should reconsider. First and foremost, the ordinance is clearly unconstitutional. It goes against our First Amendment right to peaceable assembly and serves to chill free speech by creating fear. Signs are speech. Second, the ordinance is ridiculous. It doesn’t allow protesters to carry things that can be thrown—but let’s face it: Anything can be thrown!

Finally, the ordinance (even an amended one) is a costly lawsuit waiting to happen. Local civil-rights attorney Mark Merin, who won a huge settlement against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over strip-search violations at the county jail, thinks the city is simply “buying a lawsuit” if it passes such an unconstitutional and discriminatory ordinance. Case in point: In November 2003, the city of Miami adopted a restrictive “sticks and stones” protest ordinance in an effort to intimidate protesters at a Free Trade Area of the Americas event in that city. Three months later, as a result of a lawsuit, the city was forced to repeal it.

Demonstrating is patriotic; free expression is essential to the fiber of our democracy. Plus, Sacramentans shouldn’t be made to fear showing up at a rally or marching in a parade. We strongly urge the city council to repeal this ordinance when the topic comes up again on August 17.