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Taking Liberties

By Frank J. Gruber

Last Thursday I was walking east on Santa Monica Boulevard to get lunch at the new coffee shop inside the new Main Library when at Fifth Street I bumped into former Santa Monica Mayor Paul Rosenstein. He was downtown walking around while waiting for his car to be serviced.

Mayor Rosenstein was always the council member I felt closest to politically. I worked on his successful reelection campaign in 1996 when he did something hard to do in Santa Monica -- he ran without the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, which had endorsed him when he was first elected, but still managed not to be co-opted by what passes for the "right" in Santa Monica politics.

In 1998, when he tried to create a "middle-path" political group, the "Civic Forum, and that did get co-opted, he broke with it just before the election.

Mr. Rosenstein was a true independent by local standards, but one with true left-wing values, and for the years during which he cast the swing vote the City Council was unusually productive. It didn't hurt that Mr. Rosenstein is exceptionally even-tempered.

Since leaving the Council -- he choose not run for reelection in 2000 -- Mr. Rosenstein has shown that there can be life after the Santa Monica City Council, by holding important political action positions with various labor unions. (Mayor Rosenstein by trade was a union electrician.) At present, he works for the unions at Kaiser Hospitals.

Although he is quite happy with his new job -- the unions at Kaiser and management are developing new forms of cooperative administration -- the former mayor was a bit glum when I saw him Thursday.

He immediately brought up to me the story he had read in The Lookout about the Ninth Circuit's approval of most of the City of Santa Monica's new regulations on public assembly, which the City Council enacted in 2001, and then amended in 2003. (see story)

I'm a bit glum, too. It's depressing what we have done to ourselves in the name of "quality of life" and the dread of being inconvenienced. The City's finer and finer regulation of community events, to the point that nearly any gathering of more than 150 people needs a permit, pursuant to laws enacted to deal with situations like homeless meals programs taking over the parks, or everyone's anxiety that traffic might get backed up, have made our rights as citizens narrower and narrower.

For instance, the ordinance as amended in 2003 to take into account constitutional objections then pending in court, requires anyone organizing a march or assembly on public streets, sidewalks, etc., or anyone organizing an event that will attract 150 or more people on City property, to get a permit in advance, but carves out an exemption for "spontaneous" events in response to news that breaks less than 48 hours beforehand, but only if the event occurs on the lawn in front of City Hall.

City Hall's lawn is now our "free speech zone." But what if, for instance, a public official who has done something you and 150 of your friends don't like, suddenly visits Santa Monica to give a speech? What if you and 150 of your friends want to protest where and when the speech is occurring?

Or what if a business suddenly fires all of its workers? Do the aggrieved workers and their supporters have to take their spontaneous demonstration to City Hall, instead of protesting at the business itself?

I have written previously about my annoyance at the do-gooders who come to Santa Monica to feed the homeless, without giving any other care or aid, and without coordinating their work with Santa Monica's social service providers, merely to prove how good they are, all the while as they ignore the homeless people in their own communities. And like everyone else I know what it's like to be caught in traffic behind a demonstration.

So I understand the motivation behind this kind of legislation. And I know how under the threat of civil liberties litigation laws like Santa Monica's Community Event Ordinance can, ironically, become overly broad by virtue of trying to be content neutral.

But let's not lose sight of what we lose when we try to make the world perfect and perfectly regulated.

We lose a little bit of our democracy.

And these days when Washington wants to gobble up big chunks of our democracy, we need every bit of it we've got.

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