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vista residents Chris and Diane Downey during a “Families Belong Together” rally at Cannon Park in Carlsbad. The event pushed city officials to create an ordinance regulating expressive activities. File photo
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Ad hoc committee takes up free speech ordinance

CARLSBAD — For nearly one year, the city has been working steadfastly to deliver an ordinance to make expressive activities less cumbersome and costly.

However, the Carlsbad City Council voted 3-2 to rework its proposed expressive activities ordinance and to create an ad hoc committee to work with the North County Civil Liberties Coalition to draft a less restrictive measure. Mayor Matt Hall and Councilman Keith Blackburn voted no.

First Amendment advocates and representatives from the coalition said the committee, which they proposed in August 2018, should’ve been formed from the beginning. Regardless, the old ordinance remains on the books until the new draft comes back to the council, which could take weeks or months.

Councilwomen Priya Bhat-Patel and Barbara Hamilton were open to approving the ordinance and forming a committee or readdressing the issue at a later date. Councilwoman Cori Schumacher said it was important to take the progress made, add to it and come back with a stronger ordinance. She said she also has reservations about much of the ordinance holding up pending a legal challenge.

“I think it’s important that we try to get a balance,” Hamilton said. “We are in an interesting time in our society. There are a lot of issues that people want to have an opportunity to talk about and I think it’s really important to do that in a way that protects our citizens and free speech rights.”

The issue stems from a Jun 2018 “Families Belong Together” rally at Cannon Park to protest President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families at the Mexican border. Between 700 to 1,000 people are estimated to have attended, although most were lined up on sidewalks along Carlsbad Boulevard and Cannon Road.

Organizers said they felt threatened by Carlsbad police hours before the rally because the group lacked a special events permit. The organizer, Robin Mastro, was a late addition after the previous organizer stepped away.

Once the protestors arrived, they say police acted as if they didn’t want them there. Signs were posted notifying those in attendance if damages or violence occurred, the organizers would be held responsible.

“When it comes to insurance, it is an implied hurdle to expressive activity,” said Yusef Miller of North County Civil Liberties Coalition. “The waiver itself is a hurdle to something that is free to Americans. Do we have to afford our First Amendment rights? No.”

Changes to the proposed ordinance called for increasing the size of a group from 50 to 75 people, reducing the time for notice to four hours, reducing the advance time for an application filing from 90 days to two days and allowing the city to waive the permit deadline and insurance. Other changes included no fees for using parks or reimbursing the city for police and emergency response costs.

Hall and Blackburn said they supported the draft as a way to ensure public safety. They said police should be notified when an event occurs, even a spontaneous one, to ensure the safety of all protestors, counter-protestors and those not involved.

“This conversation is a lot broader than just those who are wanting this ordinance a certain way,” Hall said.

Carlsbad Police Chief Neil Gallucci said the ordinance was crafted to get to “yes,” meaning it was a more streamlined and quicker process to approve permits for any such expressive activity.

However, Miller and Ellen Montanari of North County Civil Liberties Coalition said previous court rulings overrule those safety concerns under the First Amendment. Additionally, they challenged Gallucci’s remarks and said the ordinance was a method to easily block or delay activities.

The coalition, along with the ACLU, also citied issues with forcing insurance coverage and delays with application denials. The cost of insurance, a coalition representative said, put a price tag on freedom of speech, while denying an application could take up to a week or more, since the City Council would have to have heard the appeal in open session.

“It is very clear, when you read it closely, the city attorney and staff crafted this ordinance to be as restrictive as possible, while meeting the letter of the law,” Montanari said, referring to the First Amendment.

After the meeting, she said the North County Civil Liberties Coalition will begin lobbying other cities in North County to draft less restrictive ordinances as well.