ACLU calls protester restrictions unconstitutional

VISTA — The American Civil Liberties Union says Vista is infringing on the First Amendment rights of protesters outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s office.

Ellen Montanari has organized the weekly protests for months outside Issa’s office on Thibodo Road, drawing as many as 800 people. The ACLU’s concerns arose when Montanari tried to renew her permit through the end of the summer.

The city placed new restrictions on the permit — including where and how they could protest — setting the stage for a fight between the city, which says it was looking out for public safety, and free speech advocates.

ACLU Legal Director David Loy said in a statement that the city’s actions were inappropriate and unconstitutional.

“The First Amendment means that the government can’t tell the people where and how to protest in a public forum, unless it passes a strict test. The city failed that test.”

Loy outlined five concerns in a letter to City Attorney Darold Pieper, including rules against protesting on the sidewalk, limiting amplified sound, holding Montanari responsible for the behavior of the protestors, holding her responsible for any damage and trying to recover the costs for law enforcement.

“I am writing to discuss certain First Amendment issues arising from the City’s response to the protest, in the hope of making litigation unnecessary,” Loy said in his letter to the city. “By organizing a protest on a public sidewalk, Ms. Montanari is engaging in political speech that is guaranteed the highest level of protection.”

Spokesmen for the city and the Sheriff’s Department have told the Union-Tribune it was an issue of safety along Thibodo Road.

Capt. Chuck Cinnamo specifically cited the large crowds, posing a distraction to drivers and sometimes stepping into the street, combined with low visibility due to a nearby curve on Thibodo road as safety issues.

The owner of the building that houses Issa’s office also said protesters were trespassing on the lawn, illegally parking in the lot and had broken some sprinkler heads.

As a result, the city required Montanari to move the protests to a dirt patch on the opposite side of the road and off the sidewalk.

Citing recent court opinions, Loy said sidewalks are “uniquely suitable” for protests, and that the city’s ability to regulate that is extremely limited.

Montanari released a statement expressing her gratitude for the ACLU weighing in.

“We’ve worked cooperatively with the city of Vista and law enforcement, but we will not back down from defending the First Amendment,” she said. “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.”

A spokesperson for the city of Vista said the city attorney had not yet received the letter and didn’t have a comment.

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