Free speech shouldn’t require a permit in Brea
By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist
Every New Year brings new hope for all the possibilities of the year to come, and it’s also a time to move on from mistakes of the past and start anew.
Councilmembers in the city of Brea have a great opportunity to do just that — start the new year by abandoning a proposal that would violate the constitutional rights of the residents of Orange County.
The normally quiet city has been in the national spotlight over the past several months because it’s home to Congressman Ed Royce’s district office. Royce serves in one of several congressional seats that could flip from red to blue in 2018, and so his votes in Congress are under increasingly greater scrutiny by the media, activists and residents in the 39th Congressional District.
In late October, Congress was poised to end a program that allows those who have arrived in our country to remain here legally because hurricanes, floods, violence and other disasters have made their homelands uninhabitable. Royce refused to meet with constituents who would be negatively impacted, so a group of mostly Latino working-class families and their unions organized a peaceful protest outside of his office in a busy shopping district in downtown Brea.
As the protest was winding down, and people were crossing the street, a driver apparently became impatient and drove through the crowd. A cell phone video captured one brave protestor jumping on the hood of the car to slow it down and avoid children in its path. Police detained the driver, Daniel Wenzek, on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon, according to news reports. It’s unclear whether he was ever charged.
Instead of focusing on ensuring Mr. Wenzek would be held accountable for his actions, the Brea City Council instead proposed an over-reaching ordinance that would restrict the people he allegedly assaulted and any other Orange County resident who wishes to peacefully protest outside the Congressman’s office.
The proposed ordinance would require protestors to pay for a permit and other fees from the city several days in advance, as well as any other costs for security and safety. It also would restrict the types of signage that can be used and gives the city some discretion to reject a permit request.
City officials acknowledged Ed Royce’s office is in a “terrible location,” according to the nonprofit news site Voice of OC. It’s on the second floor above clothing stores in an area with restaurants, a movie theater and other retail shops.
What’s disappointing, however, is that rather than asking the Congressman to find a more appropriate location, the council proposed an ordinance that restricts the free speech rights of Mr. Royce’s constituents, making it costly and cumbersome to engage in the democratic process that is the foundation of our great country.
A standing-room-only crowd spoke for more than an hour against the proposed ordinance at a recent City Council meeting. The American Civil Liberties Union warned of potential First Amendment violations. One speaker, Brea resident and Attorney Greg Diamond, warned that passing the ordinance would make Brea the butt of jokes on late night talk shows.
“You can have concealed weapons in Orange County,” Diamond said in Voice of OC. “So you’re actually looking at a situation where having a handgun on Birch Street would be okay, but for cardboard thicker than this: jail time!”
To their credit the Brea City Council postponed their vote on the matter after hearing the concerns. They’re scheduled to discuss the issue again Jan. 16.
Hopefully the New Year will bring a new perspective to the councilmembers — one that first considers the rights of all its residents to engage with their democracy freely and openly. Protesters should not be punished when they’re assaulted. They should be protected and encouraged to continue exercising the rights that make this nation great.
This proposed ordinance not only punishes protestors, but it also creates a shield for Congressman Royce so he won’t have to face constituents who disagree with him. That’s wrong.
And if downtown Brea is unsafe for community members to gather and express their perspectives about an elected official, then Congressman Royce should move his office, just as any elected official should do.
Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: December 28, 2017