VISTA — A crowd of peaceful demonstrators at the Vista Civic Center grew in numbers netting the attention of after-work commuters before a June 13 City Council meeting. A concerned group of citizens, who have protested at Congressman Darrell Issa’s office for one hour every Tuesday morning since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, voiced concerns that their “freedom of speech” may be impacted due to a permit issued by the city of Vista.
While worries mounted over the threat of not being granted a new permit at the end of June, protestors wanted current restrictions lifted on a new permit if received. The current limitations included the use of amplified voice devices such as megaphones, not impeding sidewalk traffic and being responsible for law enforcement costs if mobilized.
Longtime resident Nanci Oechsle was one of the demonstrators on June 13.
“This particular rally is about rallies that have been going on in front of Darrell Issa’s office every week,” Oechsle said. “The person who originally started it has been getting a permit which she doesn’t have to do.”
According to the letter issued on June 1 by the ACLU to the city of Vista, the organizer of the weekly protest is Ellen Montanari and the letter questions the city’s permit conditions.
“The last time that Ellen applied for a permit, the city keeps putting all these other constraints on it and kind of threatening us that we are going to be personally liable for the sheriff if they come out here,” Oechsle said.
For the last few weeks, the presence of law enforcement has been visible at the Issa headquarters. Oechsle wants to know why they are there since she and her fellow demonstrators have been peaceful.
“We’re not doing anything,” she said. “They (law enforcement) have moved us across the street where it’s hot as it can be, even on a cool day. The ACLU came to observe what was going on when the permits started getting increasingly more difficult to get. They (the city) are trying to squelch our freedom of speech.”
During the City Council meeting, Vista City Attorney Darold Pieper addressed the protestor-free speech situation noting that he knew there were many demonstrators seated in the council chambers.
“Apparently, for some reason, there is a rumor that the city will not reissue a permit,” he said.
Pieper dispelled the myth by stating that this was not the case.
“A permit will be reissued,” said Pieper, noting the letter received by ACLU attorney David Loy. “So, I just wanted to make that clear moving forward.”
Many audience members applauded.
One by one, a group of the weekly protestors spoke during the oral communications portion of the City Council meeting. Sue Alderson wanted to know if the new permit would be without First Amendment violations.
“Our protest outside of Darrell Issa’s office has prompted the city to place unconstitutional limits on protestors,” she said.
The first she noted was moving the demonstrators across the street, and the other, their use of a public-address system.
“If these sanctions are indeed sanctioned by the City Council, then this is a violation of each member’s Constitutional rights and it’s actually abhorrent. No one in the Vista community should stand by and watch our freedom of speech and right to assembly be restricted by elected city council,” she said.
Deputy Mayor John Franklin, who works near the Issa Headquarters, said he was very familiar with the Tuesday morning demonstrations and had witnessed about 90 percent of them. Franklin said he thought that the city attorney had done a good job balancing the competing rights.
Franklin pointed out how the demonstrators conducted themselves primarily peacefully and within their rights, which he wholeheartedly supported. However, Franklin said he was concerned about safety issues.
“The reality is, there are some very real safety concerns that the city has a compelling interest in protecting people, not only motorists but individuals who are standing in the roadway,” he said. “I could go on and on about this issue, but it is, in my opinion, extremely important to make the point that there are other rights that are to be considered.”
While Franklin supported the protestors and the protection for everybody, he said that he didn’t want the City Council to be misled or confused about how there were real public interests to protect the rights and those of public safety.
Councilman Joe Green thanked the demonstrators for being at the City Council meeting.
“It’s fantastic that you guys are here telling us about things like this,” he said, noting that he was going to be talking with city staff about this issue. “We obviously do not want to violate any First Amendment rights, so I want to make sure that we’re not just taking city money and fighting things that we shouldn’t be fighting and making sure that you guys get to do what you want without disturbing the peace.”