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Does Costa Mesa's Day Laborer Law Ban Free Speech?

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on February 05, 2010 11:45 AM

The city of Costa Mesa, California, has just become the next in a long line of cities whose anti-solicitation ordinances aimed at day laborers have become the subject of a lawsuit. According to the Los Angeles Times, this will be the eighth federal suit in California alone over these ordinances in the last 12 years. The preceding suits have been settled or won by the laborers. One case is still awaiting a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ordinance passed by the city of Costa Mesa is similar to the others that have been challenged over the past several years. The Times reports that in response to what Mayor Allan Mansoor has said are complaints about loitering and making noise, the Costa Mesa Municipal Code, Sec. 10-354 prohibits, "any person while standing on any portion of a street ... to actively solicit employment, business or contributions from the occupants of a vehicle traveling along a street." The penalty for a violation is a fine of $1,000 and imprisonment up to six months.

According to the plaintiffs attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF), the ACLU of Southern California and the National Day Laborer's Organizing Network (NDLON), the ordinance violates the laborers' first and fourteenth amendment rights to free speech and equal protection. Belinda Escobosa Helzer, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, says the ordinances is so overbroad as written, it could even apply to, "school children ... holding car wash signs on the street or could prevent struggling businesses from using sign spinners." 

The L.A. Times reports that the suit was filed after police dressed in plainclothes posed as employers in September and arrested a dozen workers, sparking the ire of the immigrant rights groups.

Although it appears the city ordinance has a poor chance of withstanding the court challenge, Mayor Mansoor defends the city's actions. "I believe people have the right to express their free speech, but we also have to maintain order in the community," Mansoor said. "There are options for people to solicit work. I encourage people to do that through a legal means." It is now up to a California court to decide what exactly those legal means are.

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