Lawsuit Challenges Ban on Protests at California Capitol

The California Capitol building.

(CN) — California’s measures aimed at combating the spread of coronavirus unfairly restrict residents’ right to peacefully protest and stifle free speech, two individuals claim in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

California residents Ron Givens and Chris Bish claim in their suit that measures enacted by Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials to deal with Covid-19 are a “gross abuse of power.”

The two claim that the California Highway Patrol has denied their requests for permits to protest on the state Capitol grounds and are asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to enjoin state officials from interfering with their ability to exercise their rights.

Givens said in the suit that he intends to hold a protest at the California Capitol in Sacramento over the state’s handling of background checks. He claims the state’s current inability to timely process background checks for those looking to purchase a firearm is a violation of the Second Amendment.

Bish, a Republican candidate for California’s 6th Congressional District, also wishes to demonstrate on state Capitol grounds to “raise voter awareness about civil rights issues pertaining to the stay-at-home orders.”

Bish attended a similar rally at the Capitol on April 20, where hundreds of demonstrators advocated lifting the state’s stay-at-home order and “restarting the economy.”

The California Highway Patrol told The Sacramento Bee that a permit was given for that protest with the understanding that attendees would conduct themselves “in a manner consistent with the state’s public health guidance” but “that is not what occurred.”

In response to that demonstration, the highway patrol announced that it would no longer issue permits for events on state property. 

Givens, who submitted a permit application on April 22, claims a highway patrol officer informed him that he would be denied because Newsom had instructed the state agency to not issue permits for protests as they were not allowed under the state’s coronavirus order. 

He contends that there is enough room on the Capitol grounds for 1,000 people to abide by social distancing requirements.  

Bish, who applied for a rally permit on April 23, claims an officer told her she would be denied due to the state’s order and the agency’s “inability to ensure proper social distancing to keep demonstrators safe.”

“By depriving Plaintiffs of their ability to hold these protests — which, due to its nature, cannot be delayed until after the pandemic without losing their purpose — Defendants violate fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and California Constitutions, including freedom of speech and assembly, the right to petition the government, and due process and equal protection under the law,” the complaint states.

The suit alleges that other businesses and activities were given exemptions from the stay-at-home order that allow them to carry out essential activities — exemptions that are not afforded to protesters.

“The Order provides no exception for demonstrations, protests, or other First Amendment protected activities, thereby effectively banning all gatherings of any size for the purpose of protesting or petitioning the government,” the complaint states. “Meanwhile, the list deems the continuity of services provided by coffee baristas, restaurant workers, and laundromat technicians to be so necessary for society that these activities are permitted to continue under the State Order, despite the existence of the very same risk Defendants rely on to stymie the exercise of fundamental rights.”

Demonstrations against Covid-19 related restrictions have recently drawn much attention across the country and in California. Three individuals protesting beach closures near San Diego were arrested Saturday for violating public health orders. 

In a statement from the San Diego Police and Sheriff’s departments earlier this month, officials said they are striving to reach a “delicate balance” between potential constitutional oversteps and ensuring the safety of the public.

Givens and Bish are represented by D. Gill Sperlein and Harmeet Kaur Dhillon of the Dhillon Law Group.

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