Contentious item that some say would infringe on First Amendment rights to go before City Council Tuesday
By Sam Catanzaro
Santa Monica lawmakers will vote on restricting certain activities at protests, a move that some worry would infringe on First Amendment rights.
On December 15, 2020, Santa Monica City Councilmembers Phil Brock and Christine Parra directed staff to propose an amendment to the city code to “reduce prolonged noise from protest activities in residential neighborhoods while still upholding First Amendment rights.” The move was in part a response to a series of recurring protests in December targeted at the Santa Monica residence of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl who was spotted eating at a restaurant hours after voting to ban outdoor dining.
“These protests, which went on for several weeks, involved nightly, hours-long uses of amplified sound in a residential neighborhood that appeared intended to and did unreasonably harass and disturb the privacy and tranquility of residents” reads a recent city report.
Similar protests have also been held at the Santa Monica home of Assemblymember Richard Bloom.
At the December 15 meeting, Councilmember Brock said limiting excessive noise during evening hours at targeted protests could be done while also protecting First Amendment rights.
“What we are really trying to do is have an enhanced noise ordinance in the [residential] zones that allow families to have peace and quiet in their neighborhood. I want to make it very clear. I have absolutely nothing against protests and people should march, people should have placards and people who want to use their voices to express themselves on a street corner or in front of a house, they should be allowed to,” Brock said. “I am not concerned about Supervisor Kuehl or Assemblymember Bloom much because all of us have signed up for what we are doing. But I do want their neighbors to have some peace and quiet.”
“It’s about first amendment rights but it is also about the rights of people who live in a neighborhood,” he added.
At the December 15 meeting, all seven council members voted to have staff draft a proposal. Lawmakers, however, including Mayor Pro Tem Kristen McCowan expressed concern about infringing on First Amendment rights.
“I am deeply deeply concerned about infringing on First Amendment rights,” McCowan said. “We are living in very interesting times and I think there is a lot of inclination for people to want to bring their concerns directly to the people that they think might have some ability to change it. And I see this every day, and I have to say that some of the decisions that were made to not poke the bear in this instance were absolutely the right ones and I am very concerned about bringing unwanted attention to us that might actually backfire.”
Now Interim City Attorney George Cardona has returned with a proposed ordinance that not only would limit the amount of noise people can make at night during targeted residential protests, but also sets limits on what participants can bring to all demonstrations. City Council will take up the motion at their meeting Tuesday, March 9.
Cardona’s proposal would prohibit using sound-amplifying equipment on a public sidewalk, street, alley or parkway located in a residential district after 10 p.m. and before 7 a.m. on weekdays or 8 a.m. on weekends. In addition, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., people could only operate sound-amplifying equipment on a public sidewalk, street, alley, or parkway in a residential district if they are stationary– staying in a fixed location for 5 minutes or more–which would “enable decibel levels to be more easily monitored as part of a determination whether the person’s conduct was in violation of city code.” Thirdly, the changes would impose additional restrictions on those who use sound-amplifying equipment at night within 500 feet of the same location multiple times in a 7-day period.
The ordinance also calls for a prohibition on carrying certain items at community events, public assemblies and targeted residential protests. In 2008, City Council adopted an ordinance that prohibits carrying certain wooden objects during a protest or public assembly. Cardona is now proposing expanding the list of items prohibited at public assemblies, community events and targeted residential protests. The expanded list includes items such as poles, sticks, wood and metal pipes, projectiles like rocks and pieces of concrete, glass bottles, aerosol sprays, shields, baseball or softball bats and laser pointers.
The comes as the trial against Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with killing George Floyd, begins in Minneapolis this week. On May 31, 2020 in Santa Monica rioters, taking advantage of a peaceful protest against the killing of Floyd, looted hundreds of Santa Monica businesses. The Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) was criticized for its response to the event, at one point firing tear gas and rubber bullets on a crowd of protestors while just blocks away looters tore through downtown Santa Monica. Former SMPD Chief Cynthia Renaud stepped-down months later due to her handling of the unrest. Cardona, in his staff report, cited this trial as the reason for classifying the proposal as an urgency ordinance.
The proposal, which was released over the weekend, has been met with backlash from many in the community, including Unite Here Local 11, the labor union that represents hospitality workers in Southern California.
“Urge the Council to deny the newly-proposed ordinance for the following reasons: 1. Chapter 4.12 of the Municipal Code (“Noise Ordinance”) already grants law enforcement the authority to “‘[protect] residential privacy and tranquility’,” so no new legislation is needed to meet the main goal in the staff report,1 and 2. the proposed amendments to the City’s Community Events Ordinance (SMMC Sections 4.68.040 and 4.68.150), are so specific and detailed, that police and protestors alike could conclude that protest is prohibited altogether. There is no reason to risk First Amendment issues when new legislation is unnecessary in the first place,” the union writes in a petition online that takes aim at Councilmember Brock, accusing him of wanting to give police more power.
Brock, when reached for comment, told the Santa Monica Mirror that Cardona’s proposal goes too far.
“The additions to our city ordinances that the city attorney and police chief [propose] go far beyond anything I requested and the council authorized. While the changes may be beneficial in the short turn because of the renewed possibility of violent protests later this spring, the changes are being seen by some as an attempt to circumvent First Amendment rights to peacefully protest in our city. That was not and is not my intent,” Brock said. “My only concern is about the rights of families to enjoy dinner and family time in the evenings within their neighborhoods without interruption. I need to add one more item. I have no issue with people’s peaceful right to assembly and march in any neighborhood of our city, without amplification. I want our protestor’s rights to be protected as I want those who live in a residential neighborhood to be protected.”