U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brings back the First Amendment to Santa Cruz

Mayor Coonerty denounces those feeding the poor downtown as “bad for business.” And former Mayor Mathews presses church authorities to end their free dinners.

Not Illegalby Robert Norse

It’s getting darker in Santa Cruz.

Police direct homeless advocates who sing political songs at midday on Pacific Avenue to stop singing and “move along” if even one person objects.

Authorities film families peacefully walking in the New Year’s Eve Do It Yourself parade to later issue citations.

The brave homeless men and women of Peace Camp 2010, with no legal shelter, protest the city’s sleeping ban. Instead of solutions, they face high-intensity klieg lights all night, set up to drive away a homeless protest near City Hall.

When that didn’t work, city officials added additional security guards, decreed by administrative edict that City Hall grounds were closed at night, made it a crime to sit on the outside benches adjacent to the library at night, and seized homeless property.

All this repression culminated in endless ticketing of homeless people for violating the sleeping ban, and now, seven jury trials. Police continue their nightly charade of ticketing homeless sleepers when they know there’s no shelter available, only waiting lists.

New “forbidden zone” signs appear along the San Lorenzo levee banning walking there at night in a new attack on the Wednesday Drum Circle.

Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty denounces those feeding the poor downtown as “bad for business.” Former Mayor Cynthia Mathews presses church authorities to end the Red Church free dinner.

But there is a small beam of light from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled in December that three past mayors must stand trial for false arrest and First Amendment violations. No longer can politicians misuse the powers of their office to violate the Constitution, trample on free speech and stamp out the right to dissent.

Wrote the 11-member court in a unanimous decision: “We must respectfully reject the city’s attempt to engage us in doublespeak. Actual disruption means actual disruption. It does not mean … imaginary disruption. The city cannot define disruption so as to include non-disruption.”











“Decorum” is no longer a legal excuse to shut down the First Amendment. No longer can mayors “sanitize” meetings by suppressing boos, signs, groans, exclamations, claiming they “disrupt” the proceedings, unless they actually stop business. You can turn your back on the City Council and address the whole audience. All this was previously “against the rules.”

Doublespeak is the right Orwellian word for the hapless mayor’s policies. One day he’s threatening peaceful paraders with citations for walking on New Year’s Eve in a family parade for “violating the law.” The next day he’s denouncing religious groups serving food to the poor for “parading squalor.”

The court’s message to the mayor and council: stop being bullies. Your job is to hear the public, not dominate it.

I sued three mayors in 2002 and 2004 to end a continuing history of arbitrary City Council abuse targeting activists.

In one case, the mayor threatened members of the public waiting to speak. So I silently raised my hand in a mock-Nazi salute. In another instance, he arrested me for walking around the room with a sign and briefly whispering. I was jailed, but no charges were filed.

Mayor Coonerty isn’t listening. Instead of apologizing and agreeing to respect the Constitution, he intends to spend more money on top of the $130,000 already dumped in the black hole of the city attorney’s office. In the face of the court decision, Coonerty passes new rules that further limit public comment and muzzle activists.

It’s our job to say what we need to say. It’s our job not to be intimidated. We must treat those elected as our representatives — and not as our masters. Unless we actually stop a meeting dead by talking at length off topic, we can’t be singled out and arrested — even if we’ve specifically “violated” one of the many new ad hoc rules created to hush up the public.

The courts have authorized the tools. It’s up to us to use them.

It is time to welcome the First Amendment back to the Santa Cruz City Council in this time of deepening crisis and rising suffering. We’ve missed her. The court decision can be found at http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/12/15/18666771.php .

Robert Norse is a community activist concerned with local civil liberties issues.

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