Barraged by a cross-section of citizens defending the First Amendment right to assemble, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has pulled back an ordinance that they agreed would threaten that freedom.
The board Tuesday indefinitely tabled the proposal, which would have regulated speech and assembly at county facilities, including the lawn at the courthouse, and on vacant land owned by the county.
It marks the second time this year that the board has withdrawn a suggested ordinance in the face of public opposition. In May, supervisors backed away from an anti-truancy ordinance after many residents said it threatened Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures.
The ordinance introduced Tuesday came in the wake of a months-long sit-in at the county courthouse lawn last year by members of the so-called Occupy SLO movement. “It sounds like it’s ready-made to harass homeless people,” said activist Eric Greening.
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“Please have compassion, and please respect the Constitution,” Greening said.
Supervisors concurred, and, at the suggestion of County Administrative Officer Jim Grant, decided not to schedule a full discussion on Aug. 21, as they had planned.
Grant took full responsibility for preparing the ordinance. He said it followed the Occupy SLO demonstrations and was designed to protect the health and safety of the public, not to attack free speech or assembly.
The ordinance would have authorized the General Services director or her designee to issue permits for use of county facilities and vacant land. It would have set out regulations on such issues as hours of use, disorderly conduct, sign posting, camping and fires.
Regulation of those uses already exists in county codes for county parks and airports. But during the Occupy SLO encampment the county learned that it did not have such measures in place for areas around the county courthouse and other buildings.
While Grant presented the proposal as more or less a bookkeeping operation — bringing those areas under the same rules as other county properties — those in the audience treated it as a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on the Occupy SLO movement, and, by extension, others who might want to assemble and protest the decisions of their local government.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right to the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The amendment drew nearly two dozen supporters Tuesday, and they came from across the political divide. Greening and Occupy SLO members defended it from the progressive side, while local conservatives such as Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, and off-road vehicle activist Kevin P. Rice, a Tea Party speaker earlier this year, also opposed the restrictions.
Some speakers said the proposal is the latest in a series of steps by the board to control residents’ behavior. They cited an ordinance that regulates the use of plastic bags and another that outlaws smoking, as well as the anti-truancy proposal.
Others said restrictions on freedom have ramped up nationwide since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, citing the USA PATRIOT Act and other incursions on civil liberties by the Department of Homeland Security under both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Speakers found a receptive audience in the supervisors. While supervisors said they agree with the effort to protect health and safety, they also concurred that “protection of free speech is not well articulated” in the ordinance, as Bruce Gibson put it.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Frank Mecham.
It is not clear what happens now. The county did not set a new date for discussion of the ordinance. It could be altered and introduced later, or just dumped altogether.
Grant and Adam Hill suggested running it by community groups. Paul Teixeira said “there are certain people who overstep their bounds” regarding free speech and assembly.