Last month Judge Dean Pregerson heard oral arguments on the City’s motion to dismiss this suit, filed by the Venice Justice Committee against the City of Los Angeles in opposition to its ham-fisted attempts to regulate speech on the Venice Boardwalk. Today he filed his order denying the motion to dismiss in part and granting it in part as well. Pregerson’s a lively writer, and the order makes interesting reading. There are three main issues addressed in the order.
First up, the City regulates vending on the Boardwalk in various ways, but contains an exception for soliciting donations and other activities protected by the First Amendment. Plaintiff Peggy Lee Kennedy was evidently told on a couple of occasions by LAPD officers that asking for donations was vending and that she had to stop or face arrest. Everyone agrees that these cops were in the wrong, but the question before the Court seems to have been whether the law “as applied” was unconstitutional. Pregerson found that it was not, and accordingly dismissed the parts of the complaint that had to do with that claim.
Second,1 the Plaintiffs made claims under the Bane Act, which allows people to sue if their constitutional rights were violated maliciously. Pregerson found that even assuming that the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were violated, they weren’t violated maliciously. I’m skipping some details, but that’s essentially why he also dismissed this cause of action.
A couple weeks ago the City of Los Angeles phoned in a motion to dismiss Carol Sobel’s lawsuit on behalf of Peggy Kennedy and the Venice Justice Committee. I went out to the Spring Street Federal Courthouse this morning to hear arguments, and it was not a waste of time, although the City still doesn’t seem to be making a serious effort in defending this case. The Deputy City Attorney, Sara Ugaz, didn’t argue so much as read selections from the City’s reply in support of its motion to dismiss. The reply is weak, and so were the selections, even more so for being read verbatim.
You may recall that the City is claiming that linking speech restrictions on the Boardwalk to the time the sun sets is accomplishing some rational purpose. First amendment jurisprudence allows such restrictions, but the purpose must be accomplished by the least restrictive means necessary. Thus it doesn’t portend well for the City, or at least for the fate of the motion to dismiss, that Pregerson repeatedly questioned Ugaz on how using the time of sunset could possibly be the least restrictive means. He mentioned that it occurs at different times during different seasons, for instance. This prompted Ugaz to claim that the City wants to clear the view of the ocean at sunset and that “people are coming home then.”3 The judge noted again that the sun sets at widely varying times, so how does anyone know when people are coming home. This prompted Ugaz to admit that “perhaps that wasn’t the best reason.” Continue reading Further Indication of Lack of Seriousness: City of Los Angeles Sends Attorney to Read Aloud Rather Than Argue its Motion to Dismiss in Venice Justice Committee Case; Judge Pregerson Seems Skeptical→
Late last night the plaintiffs filed a searing opposition to last month’s defendants motion to dismiss. Part of the plaintiffs’ argument relies on the fact that the Boardwalk is actually a public sidewalk, and in support of that argument they also filed a request for judicial notice that included a certified copy of the deed by means of which Abbott Kinney gave the boardwalk to the City (of Ocean Park; Los Angeles didn’t get it until 1926). To understand the issues it may be useful to look at the text of LAMC §42.15.
The issue is whether or not the Boardwalk is a public forum. If it is, the First Amendment places a very, very high barrier before the City’s attempt to regulate speech there at all. Sidewalks, as opposed to City-sponsored Disneylandesque bullshit tourist-trap money magnets, are quintessential public forums,4 and this is the heart of the argument:5
The Venice Boardwalk is a traditional public forum long recognized by the City as perhaps the most prominent free speech area in the City. Although called a “boardwalk,” this pedestrian passageway is a public sidewalk, deeded to the City as a sidewalk in perpetuity in 1906. See Plaintiffs’ Request for Judicial Notice and Exhibit 1.
Public sidewalks “occupy a ‘special position in terms of First Amendment protection’ because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate[.]” They are the locations where people encounter speech they “might otherwise tune out.” “From time immemorial,” public sidewalks have been locations where “normal conversation and leafleting” have occurred as part of the First Amendment’s guarantee of “sharing ideas.” Indeed, public sidewalks are, perhaps, the most important traditional public forum because of their availability at any time at no cost.