When Vickie Mena heard that her hometown of Adelanto, CA was considering plans to build yet another prison, she decided to express her concerns through a most time-honored American tradition: she organized a protest on the City Hall lawn. But the Adelanto officials had other ideas.

In July, in conjunction with the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), Vickie planned the “Schools Not Jails” demonstration to protest the city’s plan to expand its prison facilities rather than focusing on its chronically underfunded schools. Vickie attempted to get a permit for the event by following city procedures, but city officials arbitrarily required the group to purchase a million dollar insurance policy for the small 25-person event. When Vickie and CIVIC refused to be deterred and proceeded with the protest, city officials charged Vickie with several misdemeanor violations for failure to obtain a permit.

Vickie now faces criminal charges for exercising her First Amendment rights. But the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) is standing with Vickie and fighting to protect all Adelanto community members’ freedom of expression. Last week, ACLU SoCal sent a letter to the City of Adelanto demanding that it dismiss the charges against Vickie, and reform its permitting scheme to meet First Amendment requirements.

As ACLU SoCal explained in its letter, the First Amendment prohibits the government from arbitrarily restricting citizens from speaking out, particularly when it comes to core political speech like a protest directed at government officials. The city violated this critical protection by requiring Vickie and CIVIC to obtain a million dollar insurance policy that could not be justified given the size of the protest and that the group obviously could not afford. Worst still, the permitting scheme gave city officials unbridled discretion to impose conditions on permits, despite courts’ repeated warnings that such discretion must be constrained by discrete, objective criteria to ensure that permit restrictions are not used as means to chill free speech.

Disturbingly, it appears that the city may have abused its permit powers in just this manner. In response to a Public Records Act request submitted by ACLU SoCal the city disclosed an email exchange between city officials regarding Vickie’s application for a permit. In response to the question whether “you want to require any additional conditions (Insurance, etc) before approving the event,” the city manager responded: “does [Vickie] know the city has nothing to do with the schools?” Shortly thereafter, Vickie was informed of the city’s decision to require the group to purchase a million dollar insurance policy.

The email exchange raises the gravest of First Amendment concerns. Why is the city manager considering the content of the protestors’ message in evaluating their request for the permit? Did he attempt to silence the city’s critics by requiring them to purchase an excessive and unnecessary insurance policy that they could not afford?

The troubling questions raised by the city manager’s statements provide yet more reasons for the city officials to drop the unconstitutional charges against Vickie, and for Adelanto to reform its permitting scheme to prevent against any such abuse in the future.

Michael Kaufman is staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. Follow @ACLU_SoCal.

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