Now the CHP is Violating Protesters’ Free Speech

SAN DIEGO – The California Highway Patrol has improperly been informing demonstrators protesting Escondido checkpoints that their signs are prohibited by the California Vehicle Code, the San Diego ACLU charged in a letter sent to the CHP by mail last Thursday. The CHP is violating the checkpoint protesters’ First Amendment right to free speech by forcing them to move from a public sidewalk near a highway exit ramp, an event captured on video by one of the protesters.

The San Diego ACLU sent a similar demand letter to the Escondido Police Department in January. The vehicle code cited by both EPD and CHP is not intended to quash speech; it refers to vendors selling goods near freeway on- and off-ramps.

An officer informed the protesters that they were allowed to stand on the sidewalk near the offramp, but they could not hold signs unless they moved 500 feet away.

“The law is long-settled on the issue of what represents constitutionally protected speech,” said Sarah Abshear, staff attorney for the San Diego ACLU. “It’s perplexing to me that law enforcement officials keep trying to limit the community’s First Amendment right to picket and convey their beliefs in the public forum.” Sidewalks near exits are frequently used by candidates campaigning for political office, among other protected expressive activity.

In the letter addressed to the local and statewide offices of the California Highway Patrol, the ACLU asserts that the 500-foot restriction referred to by the CHP officer unconstitutionally restricts political speech in a public forum, and that the officers offered no legitimate law enforcement authority for restricting free speech. The demand letter said that there is well established precedent holding picketing “on the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

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“The courts are even more hesitant to shut down channels of communication that give protesters an inexpensive way to share their political beliefs,” said Abshear. The ACLU sent a demand letter to the City of Escondido in January 2011, when its police officers incorrectly cited a vehicle code applying to vendors—not peaceful protesters—to try to move protesters with signs informing passing drivers of an impending vehicle checkpoint. In both cases, the ACLU stated that the California Vehicle Code being cited by law enforcement to move protesters, section 22520.5, does not apply to political speech.

The protesters include community members opposed to the use of the checkpoints to target immigrant families as well as libertarians opposed to the government’s excessive exercise of its police power. Signs at the protests have included “White Collar Crime Ahead” and “Car Thieves Ahead.” Escondido has a policy of impounding the vehicles of any unlicensed drivers, even when a licensed driver is available to move the car from the scene.