Just days after hundreds of protesters converged on the state Capitol to oppose Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-home order, the California Highway Patrol said it won’t issue permits for further demonstrations on state property anywhere in California.
The ban on large public events will remain in place until health officials decide it’s safe for people to gather in large groups given measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, CHP officials said.
“In the interest of public safety and the health of all Californians during the COVID-19 pandemic, effective immediately the California Highway Patrol will deny any permit requests for events or activities at all state facilities, to include the state Capitol, until public health officials have determined it is safe to gather again,” CHP Officer John Ortega told The Chronicle.
On Monday, protesters with American flags and Make America Great Again hats crowded outside the Capitol in Sacramento to demand an end to the shelter-in-place order. A convoy of cars drove around the complex for hours as others cheered from the Capitol grounds.
The protesters argued strict public-health orders — which medical experts credit with slowing the spread of the coronavirus — have unnecessarily forced people out of work and upended normal life.
Stefanie Duncan Fetzer, an Orange County activist who helped plan the rally, said protesters are considering whether to file a lawsuit against the state, arguing the policy violates their right to freedom of speech.
“It’s unfortunate that the CHP has opted to violate their oath of office by violating the Constitution,” she said.
Duncan Fetzer said the group has an application “pending” for a May 1 protest at the Capitol. She added, “We’re not going to change our plans.”
The CHP issued a permit for Monday’s protest and troopers did not prevent attendees from gathering on the Capitol steps and lawn. Organizers placed a lectern, portable toilet and handwashing stations on the grounds for their event.
On Wednesday, the CHP said the permit for Monday’s protest was granted with an understanding that the event would respect public-health guidance.
“That is not what occurred (on Monday), and the CHP has taken that experience into account,” Ortega said.
He said the agency had denied a permit request for another protest that would have occurred Wednesday.
If protesters gather on Capitol grounds without a permit, the CHP is prepared to issue citations and make arrests, Ortega said. Protesters are still allowed to be in their cars or gather on city sidewalks.
Kevin Baker, director of legislative affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said while the organization staunchly defends free speech, it’s “clear from a long body of case law” that government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech.
“The question is what’s reasonable under these conditions,” he said.
Baker said it appears the CHP’s policy during the pandemic is “content neutral” and motivated by public-health concerns, but he questioned whether an indefinite ban on protests on all state property “might go further than what is really needed.”
One group sponsoring Monday’s rally, Operation Gridlock California, gave attendees conflicting instructions about social distancing on Facebook. On its event invitation, the group told protesters to “STAY in your VEHICLES!”
Then, in an event flyer posted on Facebook, the group told protesters to “park and join us on the west steps” of the Capitol “to demand that we reopen California.”
The demonstrations come as President Trump tweeted that people should “liberate” their states from stay-home orders. He has pushed to reopen the economy more quickly, and has clashed with governors.
This article was first published on The San Francisco Chronicle