Sacramento clamps down on free speech

The Sacramento City Council appears to be doing John Ashcroft’s dirty work by having passed two unconstitutional ordinances, 2003-026 and 2003-028, that suppress freedom of speech. The Council unanimously voted for the secretive resolutions on June 17, just prior to the USDA Conference on Biotech and Agriculture, June 23-25.

Supposedly fearing “another Seattle,” the Council set chilling restrictions on the size and construction of protest signs. Ordinance 2003-026 states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to carry or possess any sign, poster, plaque or notice” unless it “is constructed solely of a cloth, paper or cardboard material no greater than one-quarter inch in thickness.” The thickness of picket lumber is to be limited to three-quarters of an inch.

The same ordinance outlaws possession of glass bottles or jars, conceivably making it illegal to carry a bottle of mineral water.

Although the protest organizers had been meeting with the Police Department for months about the plans and had gone out of their way to get the necessary permits, they were never informed of the pending ordinances.

Thousands of people from California and elsewhere demonstrated at the conference against the meeting’s promotion of genetically engineered food. The repressive ordinances were buttressed by an unprecedented presence of thousands of “Robo-cop” attired officers from the city, California Highway Patrol, state police and the federal government. A total of 77 people were arrested, three in Davis and the rest in Sacramento.

Apparently only six of those have been charged by the district attorney, including three under the ordinances, said Amy Sprowles, a member of the mobilization’s legal team. Two of those arrested were local pranksters holding “Save naboo!” and “Stop the Imperial Senate!” – signs making fun of the protesters.

Outraged about the large number of arrests and the ordinances, over 30 members of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture (SCSA) and supporting groups, such as the Gray Panthers, Peace Action and Veterans for Peace, held a press conference before the July 17 City Council meeting.

Heidi McLean, coalition spokesperson, presented three demands: that the biotech ordinances be rescinded, that the city drop all charges against those arrested at the demonstrations, and that an independent evaluation of the city’s use of resources during the ministerial meeting, particularly law enforcement, be performed.

During the City Council meeting, Julia Harumi Mass of the ACLU said the “overly broad” ordinance was a “constitutional loss,” and supported the call for an independent review of police misconduct during the conference and a repeal of the ordinances.

The huge police presence at the demonstrations undoubtedly had a chilling effect.

“I thought it was the right of everybody to show opposition to the city’s closing of our sustainable community garden,” said Rita Gonzalez, a member of the Mandella Community Garden Board who was arrested during the conference. “But I chose to keep my 7-year-old daughter at home for her own safety during the ministerial [meeting] because of the heavy police presence.”

At press time, the ordinances remained on the books.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org