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Calif. Law Unconstitutionally Applied to Protesters, 9th Cir. Rules

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 12, 2015 9:31 AM

A California state law prohibiting "disturb[ing] or break[ing] up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character" isn't facially unconstitutional, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit has ruled.

On the other hand, the law was unconstitutionally applied to CPR for Skid Row, a homeless rights organization centered in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, home to thousands of homeless people.

Not Exactly a Walk in the Park

CPR for Skid Row objected to walks conducted through the Skid Row neighborhood sponsored by the Central City East Association, a business development group. CCEA walks involve members of the community and public officials walking through Skid Row to see what it's like. CPR claimed that the walks were "demeaning and depersonalizing homeless individuals." In response, CPR staged protests against the walks, which included chants. Police arrested one of the protestors for a violation of Penal Code Section 403 after he "allegedly yelled loudly less than a foot away from one of the Walk attendees."

The Ninth Circuit tossed CPR's argument that Section 403 was unconstitutionally vague. Examining the statute's legislative history, the court said the purpose of the statute was to prevent interruptions of lawful meetings, but exempted political and religious meetings. This, the court explained, wasn't vague, as it gives people fair notice of what's prohibited: disturbing meetings.

What was troubling to the panel was Section 403's application in this case. The political meeting exception to Section 403 covers "electors ... assembling in public meetings for the consideration of public questions." Even though CCEA characterized walk participants as "stakeholders," using smooth public policy language, the court said the presence of public officials, along with members of the public, out in public to talk about the Skid Row neighborhood (a matter of public importance), transformed the walk into a public meeting. As a result, CPR's protests fell into one of Section 403's exceptions, and Section 403 couldn't be used to forbid its protests against the walks.

Judge Reinhardt, Concurring

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the Ninth Circuit's most reliably liberal members, would have gone even further and held the statute unconstitutional for vagueness. Neither the statute nor case law interpreting it really define "when conduct is unlawful because it merely willfully disturbs a meeting and what conduct is unlawful only if committed by means of threats, intimitations, or unlawful violence." This lack of specificity, Reinhardt said, leads to a chilling effect on free speech.

As evidence that the statute is vague, Reinhardt pointed out that the California Supreme Court misapplied it to a 1970 case involving "a political meeting clearly falling within the ambit of" the public meeting exception, though the Supreme Court never even mentioned that exception and instead invented a new, narrower construction of what it means to "disturb" a meeting.

Reinhardt also said the statute was content-based, as it's unlikely a person would try to disrupt a meeting if he or she agreed with the content of the meeting. And because "speech used to disrupt political meetings is, by and large, political speech," that speech is protected.

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