Sonoma County Superior Court scraps anti-protest policy
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.
A Sonoma County judge on Friday withdrew his month-old order that prohibited protesting, picketing, preaching and passing out fliers within a 25 feet perimeter of the county courthouse.
“The whole policy is rescinded. It will be null and void at this point,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau, who had been under fire from people, including labor organizers and a former colleague on the bench, for the rules he instituted Aug. 13 governing “expressive activity.”
He said the court's judges will revise the rules — which he said were produced by a small committee of judges at the request of the Sheriff's Department — to better address concerns voiced by attorneys, the ACLU and labor groups, among others.
“Given the comments we've received at this point, I think we need to take a step back and start over working with the various people in the community who have concerns,” said Chouteau, who suggested that the objections arose largely due to a misperception that the rules infringed on free speech.
Such infringement was exactly what retired Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil had argued in a Sept. 4 letter to the editor published in The Press Democrat.
“In a time when civil liberties are waning, it's incredible that court officials would issue a speech ban,” wrote Tansil, who could not be reached Friday for comment.
Union officials greeted Friday's development with relief, saying the rules have chilled public dissent and organizing activities during contract talks that started just before they were issued.
“It was a violation of our freedom of speech and our right to assemble and rescinding it was the right move to make,” said Carlos Martinez, a court reporter and a Service Employees International Union representative for courthouse workers.
“This isn't just about the union,” Martinez added. “This was a step in the wrong direction; it really did impinge upon your guaranteed rights as an American under the constitution.”
Chouteau said in a statement that the purpose of the initial order was: “to balance the free speech rights of the community with the court's need to provide those who come before us seeking justice a safe, fair, and neutral environment that allows jurors to decide a case based upon the law and facts as presented in the courtroom, and affords due process of law.”
In an interview, he said suggestions by union officials that the rules had been timed to the start of labor negotiations were inaccurate.
“It simply wasn't,” he said, noting that the policy had been arrived at over two years of planning. “It was the furthest thing from any of our considerations.”
But the judge, a former Santa Rosa city attorney, conceded that despite the time spent on producing them, the rules had been in some ways unclear. The vetting process was inadequate, too, he said.
“We're going to circulate it back to the groups in the community so they have a chance to review it and comment on it before it gets posted on the wall. Not doing that was a mistake we made the first time,” Chouteau said.
The new rules will clearly articulate that they do not apply to courthouse employees or restrict attorneys' ability to communicate with juries, he said.
Some pressure tactics — and a bit of cheekiness, too — have played out behind the scenes in the month since the rules were posted.
In a letter to Chouteau, SEIU attorneys threatened to file a charge of unfair employer conduct with the Public Employment Relations Board unless he rescinded the order.
On Friday, Chouteau said that prospect had nothing to do with his decision. “That's a question of fact; there's simply no basis for it,” he said.
Then, on Aug. 23, the union held an ice cream social on the courthouse grounds, displaying an SEIU banner, discussing bargaining issues and passing out leaflets. There was no crackdown by court management.
“This was encouraging because the ice cream social violated several provisions of the new order,” the union's attorneys wrote to Chouteau.
“It never was meant to” apply to such events, the judge said on Friday.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)