It’s time for Congressman Darrell Issa to come down from the roof and support the First Amendment. Our First Amendment freedoms ensure that anger and political disagreement don’t fester into violence.
— Edward Sifuentes
On May 30, Rep. Darrell Issa’s San Diego County constituents saw a different side of the nine-term member of Congress.
Angry at peaceful protesters outside his district office building in Vista, California, the congressman took to the roof to express his frustration. Looking down upon the protesters, he phoned a local newspaper reporter to explain he was on the roof because the protesters wouldn’t speak to him and blamed the reporter for being in cahoots with the protesters. On Twitter, however, Issa said he spent his morning talking to constituents and “then popped upstairs” to photograph them — from the roof.
While Issa’s behavior was erratic, it isn’t the most concerning aspect to this story. No member of Congress likes to see protests outside his window, but he should vocally defend protesters’ First Amendment right to do so. But Issa’s silence has been deafening, even though the city of Vista is trying very hard to crack down on the protests.
For the past few months, Ellen Montanari has organized weekly protests outside Issa’s office to voice concerns over Issa’s public policies, including Issa’s vote to repeal Obamacare. These days, people are eager to express their dissatisfaction with Issa’s performance and Montanari’s protests have given them a platform to do it. So every Tuesday, the protesters show up for an hour-long peaceful rally outside of Issa’s office, and the city of Vista has taken notice.
Until recently, the protesters gathered on the public sidewalk next to his office building to exercise their First Amendment rights. But under the terms of the city’s most recent permit, which is issued in 30-day increments, they have been relegated to a dirt path on the opposite side of the road. Taking direct aim at Montanari, the permit also makes her financially responsible for the behavior of all the protesters who show up.
The actions taken by the city are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that public sidewalks are one of the places where our First Amendment rights are at their most robust. A government restriction on sidewalk protests can be justified only by the most compelling and fact-based need — and that reason can never include the government’s desire that a protest be less visible or less critical.
On June 1, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties issued a letter to the city of Vista seeking the removal of the unconstitutional restrictions in the permit granted to Ellen Montanari. In our letter, we made it clear that the city cannot ban protest from a public sidewalk or make Ms. Montanari responsible for the conduct of others. We also explained to the city that it cannot bill protesters for any law enforcement response and reminded it cannot ban the use of bullhorns or microphones by protesters. The ACLU’s letter is now under review by the city attorney.
Contempt for the First Amendment, however, isn’t confined to Vista. Since the election, 22 state legislatures have considered 31 anti-protest bills. Fourteen have been defeated, but 10 are pending and seven have passed — including laws in South Dakota and Tennessee against blocking streets during demonstrations.
But the United States’ commitment to the First Amendment has been on the decline since before the election.
In July 2016, Maina Kiai, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, undertook an official mission to the U.S. to assess our country’s commitment to freedom of assembly and protest. When he completed his trip, he observed that Americans “have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment.”
But he then went on to explain that it’s our First Amendment freedoms that ensure that anger and political disagreement don’t fester into violence. “And it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most,” he said. “These rights give people a peaceful avenue to speak out, engage in dialogue with their fellow citizens and authorities, air their grievances and hopefully settle them.”
The local officials of Vista, California, should heed Kiai’s words and stop trying to block Ms. Montanari and other peaceful protesters from exercising the very rights that have made America an example to the world for over two centuries. And we should all hope Darrell Issa can find his way down from the roof and assure his constituents that he believes they have a right to protest — even when he’s the target.
Edward Sifuentes, Senior Communications Strategist, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, is a former North County Times and San Diego Union Tribune reporter. Used by permission. For more, visit the ACLU blog.