The ACLU of Southern California today filed a federal lawsuit [Valley Vote vs City of Los Angeles] against the City of Los Angeles and the manager of the city-owned Van Nuys airport for discrimination against a San Fernando Valley group seeking signatures for a petition to initiate a study on the creation of an independent city in the San Fernando Valley. Plaintiffs, Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (VOTE) charge that city employees impeded group efforts to collect signatures at several locations including a well-attended air show.

The ACLU says that these actions violate both United States and California constitutional guarantees of free political speech in public places and also show a pattern of discrimination against Valley VOTE and are not just isolated actions taken by errant city employees.

Attorney Peter Eliasberg said, "The ACLU is committed to the promise of free speech and freedom to petition. And freedom of petition means most of all, freedom from government interference. In this case the issues are clear, in fact the Los Angeles City Council already admitted that the city was wrong when it barred Valley VOTE from the air show. This suit seeks to protect Valley VOTE's right to free expression and to ensure that it is compensated for the efforts and monies it must expend to try to recover from the damage caused by the city's denying it the ideal opportunity to exercise its First Amendment rights."

Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief to prevent the city from taking further actions to impede signature gathering and damages as determined by the court to allow Valley VOTE to hire signature gatherers to collect the number of signatures it estimates it would have obtained at the annual air show, which, the complaint notes, is the largest annual event held in the San Fernando Valley.

The California Government code requires Valley VOTE to Valley VOTE to gather the needed 25 percent of the registered Valley voters, approximately 135,000 valid signatures, by August 27 to initiate a feasibility study on city-hood which is the first step towards putting the issue before the voters. Plaintiffs charge that city interference impeded their efforts in this regard, forcing them to take legal action. At a number of events held in city-owned facilities, city employees tried to interfere with Valley VOTE efforts to gather signatures and engage in other speech activities, which plaintiffs charge is a direct violation of constitutional rights. The most blatant incidents occurred the weekend of July 18 and 19 at the Van Nuys airport.

Over the July 18-19 weekend, numerous Valley VOTE volunteers tried to enter the air show, but were denied entry by city employees. One volunteer was ejected after entering the event and getting more than 80 signatures in about one hour. Valley VOTE estimates that it would have been able to collect at least between 15,000 and 25,000 signatures at the air show based on the number of petition gatherers available and the 250,000-person-strong audience.

The ACLU emphasizes it takes no position on the issue of San Fernando Valley city-hood. Representation of Valley VOTE is based solely on the ACLU's continuing commitment to defend the free speech provisions of both United States and California constitutions, which ensure the right of individuals to engage in all speech, including political speech, in a public area.

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