“Nothing is more American than political protest. We’ve worked cooperatively with the city of Vista and law enforcement, but we will not back down from defending the First Amendment. I am very happy that the ACLU has taken this case on behalf of me, and on behalf of constituents in California District 49, who have the right to freedom of speech.”
— Ellen Montanari, Indivisible 49 coordinator
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday threatened to sue the San Diego-area city of Vista unless it removes restrictions on the weekly protests at the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-49th District), which the group calls unconstitutional.
Weekly protests held in front of Issa’s local office in north San Diego county have swelled from 30 protesting constituents at the first event following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, to more than 800 people protesting Issa’s vote in favor of replacing former President Barack Obama’s landmark health care plan with Trump’s American Health Care Act.
Issa narrowly won reelection last year and has faced constant criticism in his ninth term by those hoping to unseat the nation’s wealthiest congressman, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Nationally, Issa is being closely watched as his traditionally Republican district was carried by Hillary Clinton in the presidential election and could shift blue in the 2018 congressional race.
The Tuesday protests are organized by local woman Ellen Montanari who has secured multiple event permits from the city for the protesters to gather every week.
But the ACLU says Vista has placed unconstitutional restrictions on a new permit issued Thursday which will expire on June 30.
Montanari had requested the new permit through the end of the summer.
In his nine-page letter to Vista City Attorney Darold Pieper, ACLU San Diego’s legal direct David Loy says the new requirements for the weekly protests violates the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
Among the requirements: Protesters must now meet across the street from Issa’s office in a Vista business park rather than on the grassy area directly in front of his building where the protests have been held for months; participants must follow traffic laws and not impede the use of the sidewalk; if police are called to the protest for any reason, Montanari will be on the hook for costs related to the law enforcement call; and protesters cannot use amplifiers or speakers “in a manner that disturbs the peace.”
Loy says the heightened requirements contradict First Amendment rulings by the Supreme Court, which has found restricting free speech on public streets and sidewalks “is very limited.”
By requiring the protest moved from the sidewalk directly in front of Issa’s office, the city exposes Montanari to the “significant risk that she would be prosecuted for holding the protest without a permit on the sidewalk,” Loy wrote.
“It is not plausible to suggest that a pre-scheduled weekly one-hour protest significantly burdens the capacity of law enforcement officers to protect vehicular or pedestrian access or otherwise ensure public safety,” he added.
Loy also claims the city cannot hold the event organizers responsible for the conduct of others, which he says the city is trying to do by inserting the traffic-laws requirement and law-enforcement expenses in the recently issued permit.
It’s inappropriate for the city to “condition the permit on compliance by all protesters with traffic or other rules” while reserving the right to refuse to renew the event permit if some individuals violate the rules, Loy wrote.
The legal director also raised concerns the city is shifting “costs of security to the organizer of a political demonstration,” which he points out the Supreme Court has also ruled against.
Montanari would also be on the hook for property damage or any claims filed with the city stemming from the protest activities which Low says goes beyond “Montanari’s actions or those she has directed.”
In a statement, Montanari said she has “worked cooperatively with the city of Vista and law enforcement, but we will not back down from defending the First Amendment.”
The Vista City Attorney’s Office told Courthouse News it has not yet received the letter and cannot respond to a letter it does not have.