If Helen Robbins-Meyer, the chief administrative officer for San Diego County, California, has her way, the county Board of Supervisors will implement rules to create so-called “free speech zones” in county parks, restricting protests and other free-speech activities, NBC San Diego reported Tuesday. According to Robbins-Meyer, the measure is needed to keep protests from hindering recreational or civic use.
But, NBC said, supervisors expressed concern that her proposal would infringe upon people’s First Amendment rights. One of the parks affected is Waterfront Park, a popular spot for protesters as well as private events and recreation. If passed, the measure would “establish the issuing of advance permits for protests,” NBC said. Officials, however, said permits are not required. And, NBC added, “those trespassing on private events at the park could be fined.”
Supervisors cited a letter from the local ACLU that expressed concerns over free speech. David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, reportedly found “troubling issues” he asked the County to fix, either by revision or further clarification.
“The ordinance would regulate any activity, no matter the number of attendees, that would ‘interfere’ with the uses and functions of the Waterfront Park and/or County Administration Center ‘if ‘ conducted outside Free Speech Zones or with a First Amendment Activity Permit,” the ACLU said. But, Loy argued, the term “interfere” cannot justify restricting free speech.
“Courts have ruled that it is ‘unduly vague’ because it has no objective standard for determining how particular conduct would unlawfully interfere at a great enough level to restrict speech,” the ACLU said. “Additionally, this proposed ordinance must be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny for vagueness because it regulates speech.”
Secondly, the ACLU said the proposed ordinance “burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to address the County’s interest in safety and access.” According to the ACLU, “much more speech is being restricted than is necessary” as the proposal would exclude speech from “large swaths of the public park.”
The ACLU also argued that requiring a permit for speech constitutes “prior restraint” and drastically burdens free speech. “The First Amendment obliges the government to justify any permitting requirements in s public forum, especially for political speech,” the ACLU added.
ABC10 said that according to county staff, other parks already have designated free speech zones, but they do not require permits. Supervisor Dianne Jacob recommended staff consider requiring groups obtain a special event permit instead of creating a new permit for Constitutionally-protected First Amendment activities. Supervisors are set to revisit the proposal on July 21, although NBC said a second reading of the proposal is slated for June 23.