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Free To Protest

There was one big scramble downtown last week after U.S. District Judge Gary Feess told the DNC organizers, the Secret Service and the LAPD that the First Amendment still applied to the coming Democratic National Convention.

”Protecting the safety of all people present in the Staples Center area during the convention is undoubtedly a significant government interest,“ Feess wrote.

But, he added, ”Government cannot infringe on First Amendment rights on the mere speculation that violence may occur.“

In all your life, you may never again read so delicately drawn a statement on the need to balance conflicting rights. It merits quotation.

Feess‘ ruling could go to the 9th Circuit for a quick appeal. And it’s possible the higher court could change the opinion.

But you‘d be crazy to bet on that. Meanwhile, at City Hall and Parker Center, things seemed catatonic. You could tell how little the city was prepared for this eventuality by the fact that it fell to none other than Bill Fujioka, the city’s last chief administrative officer (whom Mayor Dick Riordan is desperately trying to dispose of), to make the official pronouncement, to say there was nothing to worry about. How about those costly extra police, now that the protesters will no longer be crowded into a tiny bullpen a battleship‘s length from the Staples Center? Now that they can actually walk close and, well, protest? Is the city really okay with that?

”Yes, we can handle it,“ Fujioka said. Well put. But Fujioka’s job sunsets next year, so his long-term accountability isn‘t huge. City Hall insiders hope that any extra financial burden due to extra convention law enforcement will be picked up by the state, but no one knows how long it will take for the state to reimburse the city.

In hindsight it’s amazing how little the last L.A. convention planners considered the protests of that time. 1960 convention demonstrators (according to historian Theodore H. White) mostly sang hymns and carried signs saying things like ”We Want a God-fearing Man, Not a Man Ruled From Rome or Moscow.“ America‘s had decades of assassinations and violent protest since then -- climaxing with the year-end Starbucks bashing in Seattle, assuming you don’t count the June ruckus here. Hymn singing is no longer the norm.

So you understand the overwhelming urge to caution. But even voices within the city government (particularly Free Speech Movement vet and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg) lambasted the very concept of the protester ghetto. When you considered the Berlin Wall--style concrete berms and 30- to 32-foot-high fences planned around Staples, you wondered if the demonstrators were arriving in tanks.

Then comes Judge Feess to declare that much of the ”Secure Zone,“ or the sidewalks and streets protected by those very bulwarks, are what the law in its fractured Latinity calls ”public fora“; that is, places where you and I are supposedly allowed to go. But not on this occasion, the defendants responded. Unless you are accredited media or invited by the Democratic National Committee, you aren‘t allowed onto this particular 186-acre spread.

This, the judge ruled, is unduly restrictive. Feess said that the convention is one of the nation’s most important events. But ”the 260-yard [separating] distance ensures that only those delegates with the sharpest eyesight and most acute hearing have any chance of getting the [protesters‘] message . . .“

Feess continued, ”The First Amendment does not permit such a result.“ The delegates must be able to hear and see the demonstrators. So be it. Make it so, Los Angeles, just this once, at least. Other areas of the arena get to be tightly secured. Not, however, the region through which the delegates come and go. Protest means discourse, and Feess wants that discourse.

But the most important -- and underreported -- aspect of Feess’ ruling doesn‘t just apply to DNC 2000. It also rectifies the city’s extremely undemocratic and a long-standing ordinances on public assemblies.

Ever tried to mount a protest in this town? Getting permission to have a parade or demonstration in Los Angeles isn‘t much easier than getting permission to open a massage parlor -- and it can take even longer. Which tells you what City Hall thinks of free speech. To parade here, you have to apply for a permit 40 days in advance. Then you have to appear before a hearing board to state your case; after that, you may get your permit. Not much spontaneity allowed there.

These laws, Feess opined, ”have the potential to reduce speech drastically because they impose both a procedural hurdle of submitting an application and temporal hurdle of waiting for a response.“ Cities like San Francisco handle this permitting in 36 hours, Feess observed.

In reality, the advance-notice requirements for such events are often waived. No one, for instance, ever shut down the Hollywood Christmas Parade because its organizers forgot to apply 40 days in advance. City Council minutes show how very often events (ethnic parades, typically) get retroactive ”permission“ weeks, or even months, after the event occurred.

City officials call this lenience. But to Feess it’s ”unfettered discretion,“ and hence another form of prior restraint. So, for that matter, is the city‘s tendency to waive requisite parking and traffic-management fees for favored showcase parades and other public events. Which meant that D2K was supposed to pay those fees, but the Grammy Awards and Lakers paraders, for instance, were not.

Then there’s the city‘s control of activities in city parks ”for one or more persons, the conduct of which [might] draw a crowd of onlookers.“

What’s a crowd? the judge asked: ”Two, 10, 100?“ Three‘s a crowd, as the saying goes. Citing the statute’s wanton vagueness, Feess struck it down.

As Harold Meyerson recently wrote in these pages, Los Angeles is chronically tightfisted with public space, our need for which goes well beyond public discourse. There‘s no easy way to create the communal areas this city so desperately needs. But the ACLU, by filing suit, and Judge Feess, by striking down the dowdy assortment of restrictive laws that reigned over public activity, have given us the legal room to have our public say.

Goodbye, Standup Guy

It’s like imagining President Clinton ditching Janet Reno. That‘s how it felt to read in the Daily News that Dick Riordan was ousting one of his longest-allied and most loyal subordinates -- none other than Harbor Commission President Ted ”Tedzilla“ Stein. Who three years ago ran for city attorney on what you might call the Riordan ticket.

Stein’s harbor appointment had seemed a consolation prize for losing that race to incumbent Jim Hahn. But the appointment ran into trouble in the City Council.

The big issue then was the role Stein had earlier played, as Airport Commission president, in hiring notorious onetime Clinton associate Webster Hubbell as a city lobbyist. Hubbell was to run interference with Washington on Dick Riordan‘s bid for a bigger share of airport revenues. But Webb ended up pleading out on pending charges. Stein got all the blame, but he may have been taking the fall for inner-circle Riordandom.

Sending someone who is controversial down to the harbor is a not-unprecedented way for a mayor to get such a someone out of sight (think of Tom Bradley and Ezuniel Burts). In any case, Stein did well enough there not to attract hostile attention. End of story, you might think, with Riordan and Stein walking off into the sunset next year, hand in hand. Pals to the end.

Not quite. Riordan’s people insisted he just wanted a change. But a friendly commissioner replacement usually transfers the removee to another commission.

Not this time.

According to Rick Orlov‘s report in the Daily News, Stein says he was bounced because he’s been raising money for the mayor‘s campaign of his own former opponent Jim Hahn. And Dick Riordan is totally committed to the mayoral bid of his sidekick Steve Soboroff. (Perhaps Soboroff loyalists are not easy to find. Stein was replaced by a lesser Hahn loyalist, developer Rick Caruso.)

The News reported that Riordan now wants to give special attention to harbor-area waterfront development -- an issue that Soboroff himself has been discussing with San Pedro locals.

We’ll have a column on this development in the near future. But meanwhile, does the mayor really expect second-generation loyalty from his commission appointees -- not just to himself but to his chosen successor? That could create problems. For instance, union chief Maria Elena Durazo sits on the Recreation and Parks Commission, and county labor potentate Miguel Contreras sits on the Airport Commission. And both are strongly rumored to favor the mayoral candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa.


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