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Free Speech Suit May Force Change in Park Law : Legislation: The ACLU objects to a rule requiring groups to get permits to use public areas. To avoid litigation, the city may amend its ordinance.

March 21, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — Several members of the Santa Monica City Council say they are willing to amend their embattled park regulation law if it would lead to resolution of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The sudden willingness to make changes in the controversial law came on the heels of a closed-door council session Tuesday night.

Council members declined to discuss what was decided at the legal strategy session with the attorney who is defending them against the ACLU lawsuit.

The federal lawsuit filed against them earlier this month contends that the law requiring permits for large groups that use the parks violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech and assembly.

But in interviews after the closed-door session, several council members emphasized that they never had any intention of infringing on free speech rights. They said they had gone out of their way to avoid doing so in preparing the law and were willing to go even further to assuage the ACLU's concerns.

"I never expected we were going to get into First Amendment issues," said Mayor Judy Abdo. "If we did, it was inadvertent. . . . I don't have any trouble removing the whole First Amendment issue."

Councilman Kelly Olsen said he was willing to take the ACLU's advice on the free speech issue. "Why do a battle about the First Amendment?" he asked. "If we're going to get sued about something, let's get sued about the real issue."

The underlying issue is whether the city can in effect ban homeless feeding programs from the park as part of its overall plan to feed the homeless indoors, at city-sponsored programs that already serve 300 meals a day.

Some advocates for the homeless have resisted the indoor meals program concept, saying they are legally entitled and morally obligated to feed the hungry where they can be found--in the parks.

The word homeless is never mentioned in Santa Monica's park regulation law, which on its face simply requires permits for any group of more than 35 that wants to use the parks. In practice, the law would end a number of homeless feeding programs because permits for any one group are limited to two a month.

The law specifically states that groups wishing to exercise their free speech rights would be automatically granted a permit, but the ACLU contends having to obtain permission to exercise one's free speech rights is unconstitutional.

It is this provision of the law that several council members said they are willing to drop, though ACLU attorney Carol Sobel said that would only address one of many problems with the ordinance.

From its inception, the park regulation law has been mired in controversy over its legality. The refusal of City Atty. Robert M. Myers to write it led to his firing by the City Council last fall. Myers had earlier refused to write a separate law aimed at prohibiting camping in parks, which is also the subject of a lawsuit.

At a recent rally protesting the park regulation law, Myers dismissed it as a "ridiculous" attempt by the City Council to sweep homeless people out of sight.

After Myers' firing, the City Council retained Michael Jenkins, an attorney with the municipal law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon, which advises many other local cities. Jenkins assured them that the parks law they sought was a neutral regulatory scheme that was constitutional.

ACLU attorney Sobel said she was asked by Jenkins on Wednesday if she would be willing to delay pursuit of the lawsuit while the city rewrites it.

Jenkins denies making such an offer, but he acknowledged suggesting various hypothetical ways of resolving the lawsuit. He said none of the suggestions should be construed as a tacit admission that the law won't hold up in court.

"I have no dispute with the notion we have some willingness to consider (amending the law) as part of a package," Jenkins said. "The question is: What's the rest of the package? . . . We're prepared to defend the law as written."

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