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Scientology foes blast new Riverside County law

Critics say an ordinance limiting protest outside the church's Golden Era studios near Hemet violates free speech. A studio official says the demonstrators are dangerous.

January 10, 2009|David Kelly

GILMAN HOT SPRINGS — Church of Scientology critics are accusing Riverside County of kowtowing to the religion and infringing on free speech by passing an ordinance that limits protest outside the church's sprawling complex near Hemet.

For the last year, a handful of demonstrators who believe Scientology is an abusive cult have picketed Golden Era Productions, the church's main center for the production and dissemination of videos and tapes. The campus is home to 500 church employees.

Similar protests have been held at Scientology facilities worldwide by the Internet-based group Anonymous, which counts many former Scientologists as members. Protesters often wear masks.

Catherine Fraser, Golden Era's director of public affairs, contends that the protesters are dangerous.

"It is my job to keep our people out of harm's way," Fraser said. "We want to balance free speech with the right of privacy."

She said that the campus had received 56 bomb threats and 30 death threats in the last year and that one man was arrested recently for biting a security guard trying to move him away from the property.

Because of such incidents, the church, which has a reputation for aggressively defending itself, approached Supervisor Jeff Stone about an ordinance to keep demonstrators away from living quarters on the property in unincorporated Gilman Hot Springs.

On Tuesday, Stone put the measure on a fast track, meaning it did not get a second hearing. A handful of anti-Scientology activists spoke at the meeting, saying the limits hindered their 1st Amendment rights, but the measure passed unanimously.

The ordinance, which applies to all unincorporated areas of the county, requires protesters to stay 50 feet from the property line of any private residence they target.

"I am not a member of the Scientology Church, but I am grateful to live in a country where I could be if I wanted to," Stone said. "This in no way is intended to limit the right of people to protest, but I don't believe they should be jumping around on private property."

Abiding by the new rule is challenging for Golden Era protesters, since the church owns the land on both sides of the public road, the property line surrounds all 700 acres and residences are scattered throughout the fenced compound.

Critics say the ordinance is a thinly disguised effort to shut down the protests, a notion denied by the church.

"There are plenty of places where people can voice their viewpoints," said Sam Alhadeff, an attorney who represents the church. "There are many places they can picket."

Supervisor Roy Wilson raised concerns before voting for the measure.

"I don't want us to prohibit picketing at the institution -- but I was assured this was aimed at residential picketing, not picketing against the Church of Scientology," he said. "They do not have the right not to be protested as long as it's peaceful."

He attached a requirement that the board revisit the ordinance in six months and review any problems.

It might not take that long.

Protesters showed up outside the gate of the compound on Thursday. They carried signs such as "Scientology Keeps Slaves Here," and shouted slogans that included "Tax the cult!"

Donald Myers of West Hollywood, who opposes Scientology's negative view of psychiatric drugs, said of church officials: "Even the smallest protest freaks them out."

"They all go inside when we come and we never have more than three or four people here," he said. "This is the Xanadu of xenophobia."

The church has placed large audio speakers alongside the road that play sound effects meant to drown out the shouts.

"This ordinance is wrong and has a chilling effect on the 1st Amendment," said protester Graham Berry. "It creates a way for Scientology to make bogus police reports and file lawsuits that we will have to defend against."

Soon after demonstrators arrived, four Riverside County sheriff's cruisers pulled up. Deputies spilled out and demanded identification. They asked for the driver's license of a reporter covering the event and tried to question him.

"This happens every time we come out," Berry said. "Meanwhile real crime is going on elsewhere."

Sgt. Joseph Nardone asked the demonstrators if they were protesting individuals or the church. He said he had received 911 calls about the rally from inside the compound.

"We are not here to stop any right to free speech," Nardone said.

Sheriff's officials, aware of recent incidents at the compound, said members often call 911 about demonstrators.

"We prefer to respond with more rather than less people," said Lt. Patty Knudson of the sheriff's Hemet station, which handles the area. "Sometimes Golden Era will contract with us for extra patrols and we assign two deputies for that. They have probably done that four or five times over the past year."

As deputies questioned protesters, church officials gathered just inside the gate. They were clearly unhappy.

Fraser got on the phone to the Riverside County counsel's office to see if the demonstrators could be pushed farther down the road.

No answer was immediately forthcoming. The county counsel was unavailable for comment Friday.

"We want to get them away from this whole sector," Fraser said, looking at the three middle-aged demonstrators. "Everyone has the right to protest, but we don't want them endangering our staff."

Informed about the incident, Supervisor Wilson expressed concern.

"The church assured us that they could protest outside the main gate. We have not prohibited that," he said. "If they start restricting locations and start applying this ordinance to mean you can't protest Scientology at all, then we will have to revisit it."

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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