Long Beach council rejects ban on protests with ‘targeted picketing’ near homes

Protesters gathered outside what they believed was Mayor Robert Garcia’s residence in Long Beach on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

By Kristy Hutchings, Press-Telegram

The Long Beach City Council rejected a ban on “targeting residential picketing,” or protesting, within 300 feet of an individual’s home, during their Tuesday, March 21 meeting. The council had initially requested a look at such rules in 2021 after several instances of demonstrations at local elected officials’ homes.

The ordinance, which the City Council opted to receive and file on Tuesday, would have also enshrined legal enforcement of the ban into Long Beach’s municipal code. Violators of the law would have been subject to a misdemeanor charge — which is punishable by a $1,000 fine, a maximum of six months in city or county jail, or both.

And, any “aggrieved” person — be it a neighbor or the target of the protest — would also have been permitted to bring legal action against people who break the protesting ban, the ordinance said. A court could award that party up to $1,000 per violation of the ordinance, alongside repayment for any damages and legal costs.

The council initially requested the City Attorney’s office to draft the ordinance to prohibit residential picketing in September 2021 — after there had been instances of protests outside the homes of local elected officials the year prior during the initial outbreak coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

“Some groups and individuals have used tactics that include targeting an individual’s home for the protest, often utilizing harassment and intimidation that can be traumatizing for children and neighbors,” the memo said. “There are numerous opportunities for this protest and dissent to take place in public spaces, without targeting a private residence and an individual’s family.”

The 2021 item was approved by nearly the entire council — excluding 7th District representative Roberto Uranga, who said he wouldn’t support the item because he believes in the right of individuals to protest under the First Amendment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Uranga said during the 2021 meeting. “This ordinance, while it might be in the spirit of protecting the welfare of elected officials or the subjects of any kind of protests — I think that people have a right to do so, and I think we know that when we get into this job that is very much a possibility.”

But on Tuesday evening, the bulk of the City Council — including those who had originally supported the draft ordinance request alongside new members who weren’t part of the council in 2021 — said they didn’t feel comfortable supporting the ordinance.

“I think 2020 and the protests that went on during that period of time were somewhat of an outlier, and I don’t know that we can necessarily set policies based on what happened during that period of time,” Austin said Tuesday night. “I think the spirit of this was, let’s do something before someone gets hurt on either side of this  — that said, I’m 100% comfortable voting on this tonight.”

Councilmember Megan Kerr, who was just recently elected to the Fifth District seat in November 2022, said much the same.

“This was something that was brought by the previous council, in a very different time,” Kerr said. ” This feels like an item that came from a time — I’m not sure that we’re there.”

Other cities, meanwhile, have similar bans in effect. The city of Los Angeles, for example, OK’d an ordinance enacting much the same restrictions in September 2021, and residential picketing has been outlawed in San Jose since 1993. That city’s anti-picketing law was later upheld by a state appeals court.

“I see this as a bigger conversation about politicians facing complaints,” said Matt Lesenyie, an assistant professor of political science at CSU Long Beach, in a Tuesday interview. “It’s uncomfortable to be demonstrated against — but (it’s) an unwillingness, I think, for some politicians to face that not everybody’s going to like you, and they don’t have to be quiet just because you want to go about your life.”

The ordinance, Lesenyie said, would have a chilling effect on protesting — and would likely prevent the target of the protest from hearing the message.

The 300-foot radius is equivalent to about the size of a professional football field.

“Demonstration is a form of our speech, and it’s got be proximate to the target,” Lesenyie said. “Nobody wants to run for their next campaign against free speech — this is (saying) ‘I’m permitting it, but it should be five houses down.’”

Other Long Beach residents seemed to agree with Lesenyie’s concerns. A virtual letter writing campaign, organized by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Long Beach chapter, had sent over 1,400 letters to the City Council urging them not to enact the ban by Tuesday evening.

But few members of the public were present at the meeting to speak in favor or against the ordinance. Sixteen people had signed up to speak about the item during public comment when the meeting started at about 5 p.m. — but just about ten were left by the time the City Council got to the item at around 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Still, all who did speak asked the City Council not to pass the ordinance.

“This ordinance would limit residents’ ability to have their voices heard by the intended audiences and infringe on some of these cornerstones of our democracy,” said James Suazo, executive director of local nonprofit Long Beach Forward. “Now is not the time to be adding more crimes to the city code and criminalizing the right to assemble.”

Councilmember Mary Zendejas, for her part, said the public speakers’ comments — and their willingness to stay late to have their voices heard — were worthwhile.

“I just want to share with you that you have made an impact,” Zendejas said, “It would not feel right on my heart to support this.”

Original Source: [hyperlink original article]

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