Sacramento inches closer to banning its Occupy protesters. And sponge baths.
Freedom isn’t free—coming soon to City Hall?
There’s a new ordinance making its way through city council, one that includes provisions to quell protests—by banning cowbells, sponge baths, confetti, smoke machines, chalk and even activists, such as Occupy Sacramento protester Michael Nettles, from City Hall’s grounds.
Nettles has camped out at historic City Hall for the past month. A homeless man with bundles of clothes and other gear leashed to his bike, Nettles joined Occupy Sacramento’s small but loyal protest on the building’s front lawn and says he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
During the day, he hands out flyers from a folding table on I Street and tries to explain why the Occupy group demonstrates in front of the city’s headquarters. “I believe this is a way for people to participate in their government,” he said.
But if the city council approves a controversial new law, Nettles and his fellow Occupy members won’t be allowed to stay.
Last Thursday, the council’s Law and Legislation Committee approved changes to a proposed ordinance that would, among other things, require a paid permit for planned demonstrations at City Hall. Protestors hoping to use tables, chairs, microphones and loudspeakers would only be able to demonstrate during the week between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. And permit applicants would also need liability insurance before getting the city’s approval.
The city hasn’t decided how much to charge for the permits, but individuals who violate the law would be slapped with a hefty fine—anywhere from $250 to $25,000.
City council members will vote on the proposed ordinance next month. If they approve it, local activists say the new law would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
Cres Vellucci, a spokesman from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sacramento chapter, said Sacramento’s elected officials seem hell-bent on undermining peaceful expression.
“It’s kind of a way to create laws where they can successfully attack Occupy or certainly other demonstrators,” said Vellucci.
Before last Thursday’s hearing, the ACLU sent a letter to city council members complaining about key provisions in the proposed ordinance, including the permit requirement for demonstrations. In the letter, the group argued that “permit requirements are prior restraints on speech and therefore carry a heavy burden of unconstitutionality.”
Predictably, city officials have disagreed. At last Thursday’s hearing, committee members defended the ordinance, which they claimed doesn’t limit free speech for “spontaneous” protestors who aren’t using props or amplified sound. These demonstrators, argued chairman Jay Schenirer, don’t need a permit.
“I believe from what I’ve seen, we are the most accepting form of government around here,” committee member Darrell Fong said during the hearing. “If you go to the Capitol, you have to get a permit; you have to do certain things. We allow you to come out here, to protest and demonstrate.”
According to Schenirer, city staff members have already changed parts of the ordinance to reflect concerns about civil rights, and said the proposed law had “come a long way.” Originally, protestors could only use a permit between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.—a provision fiercely opposed by the ACLU.
“We got rid of some of the things in here that I personally thought were a little bit onerous,” Schenirer said during the hearing.
For their part, staff members say the new rules are necessary.
Rhonda Lake, the city’s facilities and real-property superintendent, said the new policy clarifies things for protest leaders. Before drafting the ordinance, Lake said the city had a patchwork system for approving demonstrations. “Without having those rules in place, I think it causes confusion,” she said.
Lake also defended the proposed ordinance and said the law wasn’t directed at specific groups like Occupy Sacramento. She said staff members first discussed the rule changes nearly 18 months ago.
But opponents say that’s hogwash. They point to certain provisions in the law, such as the ban against cooking food or washing dishes, as proof that city officials have a target in mind.
“It’s pretty obvious that it’s aimed at Occupy,” said Vellucci, who believes the city, which he says has tried and failed since last October to remove protesters from downtown, wants to stamp out the Occupy movement.
Lake said the city council would probably vote on the new law by mid-September. But if the council approves the ordinance, opponents may try to block it with a lawsuit, said Vellucci.
“If the ACLU doesn’t file one officially, I’m sure we can find an attorney to file locally,” he said.