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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Car Wash

Actually, it’s what happened at the January 24th Tustin Planning Commission meeting that really concerned me. Let’s start with Chairman Jeff Thompson violating the Brown Act during the public comments section of the meeting. This is the part where citizens, far and wide, may come up to the podium and express their view on anything that comes under the purview of the Commission. At the beginning of the public comment section, Chairman Thompson said, “Fill out one of those forms that are at the podium and you can hand that off to Adrian. And, uh, let us know your name and address.” Oops. Did anyone inform Jeff that you don’t have to give your name and address before addressing a public meeting? Even infering that one must do so, as he did, is a big no-no.

In a Voice of OC article last year on this subject, Terry Franke, the Voice’s open government consultant said,

You don’t have to enforce what appears to be a mandate in order to chill persons from coming forward. There’s no legitimate reason I can think of for requiring speakers to give their names,” Francke said. “And I believe doing so contravenes both the Brown Act and the First Amendment, under which anonymous speech about public issues is a fundamental right recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Given the fact that this city has had problems with certain councilmembers who chose to squelch both the general public and their peers by demanding they sit down and shut up, Jeff should be very careful. This is especially so since the city has chosen to use both the council chambers and the planning commission as battleground for their fight with Bret Fairbanks in Old Town Tustin. Just a word of advice, Jeff, but you may want to watch what you say on the dais.

But, it gets better.

The Commission had just approved the consent calendar. One of the items was the express car wash we had written about earlier. Kal Patel, the complainant, who just happens to own a competing car wash nearby, was in the audience. After approving the consent calendar, Jeff elected to allow Patel to speak. He was unsure, however, just how to proceed under, as he put it, Roberts Rules of Order. Apparently, the city’s mouthpiece wasn’t at the meeting so Community Development Director and aspiring lawyer, Elizabeth Binsack, decided to dispense legal advice:

Through the chair, it might be appropriate for you to re-open public comments and ask Mr. Patel to address the commission.

Yeah, right. Thanks Ms. Binsack, esq. Except that isn’t really the way it works. Oh, yes, Thompson is free to take public comment as he sees fit. I am not aware of any rule against that. But, to what point? The vote has been taken. It would be a bit difficult to have a do-over.

So, Patel gets his 3 minutes and what does he complain about? The vacuums. The sign says they are free which, according to him, is not typical of an express car wash. He then goes on to complain that he doesn’t think these stalls should be taken up by the vacuum stations. Did he not actually read the staff agenda report that discussed this issue? Patel went on but it became obvious that he was singing the same old tune again. What he should have said was, “I don’t really appreciate you allowing another car wash with lower prices and a convenience market where my customers are more likely to go now” Oh, and Jeff? You can probably forget about that campaign contribution from Mr. Patel should you decide to run for city council.

Here is the bottom line. Mr. Patel should have asked to have this item pulled for discussion or asked to speak at the beginning of the meeting to express his concerns. Instead, Thompson pandered to him and allowed him to speak after the fact. Lawyer Binsack merely facilitated that by expressing a legal opinion when she needs to stick to directing her department (and, where was the real lawyer anyway?).

Thompson did do the right thing by directing staff to work on the issue and make sure the business was being conducted legally and within the permits issued by the city. If we had one thing to say, Jeff? Get a (real) lawyer.

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Anti-SOPA Message Gets Through

You may have noticed that, yesterday, we blacked out our blog in support of the Anti-SOPA movement. SOPA, the Stop Online Privacy Act is a Congressional bill that is currently being debated in the House. There is a companion Bill using the acronym PIPA in the Senate. Proponents say it is much needed legislation that would prevent piracy of intellectual material over the internet. The Motion Picture Association and many unions in that business are in support of the measure.

Anti-piracy is a sound idea and we are strong supporters of property rights. However, this bill is so vague and ambiguous that anyone who inadvertently passes on copyrighted material over the internet would be subject to heavy penalties. More, importantly, this measure threatens First Amendment Rights because it would allow businesses to shut down websites they believe are passing copyrighted material without going through due process. Next would be warrantless searches of personal data such as has allegedly been demanded by the U.S. Government from Twitter in regard to the hashtags used by the #Occupy movement. If this is starting to sound a lot like Bush’s Patriot Act Part II, you are not far from the truth.

SOPA is scheduled to be heard on January 24th. Yesterday, thousands of websites, like ours, went dark for 12 hours to show solidarity against this threat to our rights. Millions of people on Twitter and Facebook supported us with messages or by non-tweeting for that period. In response, over a dozen sponsors of the Bills dropped out. The White House has also stated they do not support SOPA.

We’re not done yet. The MPAA and their lobbyists are busy amending these Bills to get them passed. We must remain vigilant. So, for the next few days, until these Bills are heard and defeated, this website will display the “No Censorship” banner. Please support our efforts. Click on the “No Censorship” banner to go to the online petition and sign up with millions of others to have your voice heard and to tell our politicians to leave the First Amendment alone.

When 1st Amendment Rights Collide

Like any good Constitutionalist, I have been following the trial of the “Irvine 11“. The trial, which began last week pits competing 1st Amendment rights against each other.

Last year in February, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was invited by several campus groups, including  “Anteaters for Israel”, to speak on the UC Irvine campus. The speech was political and sure to be controversial, as it encompassed the Israeli state and the issue of Palestinian statehood. It was expected that there would be a protest of some sort by pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli groups.

The group centered in the spotlight consisted of members of the Muslim Students Union. Eleven members of the group, including three students from UC Riverside, participated in the protest which consisted of slogans shouted out by each protester, one after the other with the intention of expressing their views of Oren’s speech. The protesters were, of course, escorted out of the audience by campus police, who were waiting en masse in the aisles. They were patted down and arrested. University officials subsequently sanctioned the Muslim Student Union and the specific individuals involved. That’s as far as it should have gone, but it didn’t.

For whatever reasons, the Orange County District Attorney’s office chose to prosecute the protesters for disrupting the Israeli ambassador’s speech. The specific charges were, conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting, both misdemeanors that could result in fines and probation. It did not take long for the case to gain international recognition and support, with several youtube videos going viral and even  Jewish news services apparently supporting the students’ rights.

Why?

Because, universally, the world recognizes the Muslim Students right to free speech.

Our forefathers were wise men. I believe that the Constitution, as written, is as valid today as it was over 200 years ago when George Washington said, “I don’t expect this Constitution to last more than 20 years.” George wasn’t infallible, just a great Father of our Country. If he were alive today, he would be proud that our Constitution has not only lasted this long but has been the framework for numerous other constitutions of countries around the world. He would also be proud that our Constitution has lasted largely untouched for so long. We have the oldest unchanged government in existence. In fact, constitutions change so frequently that over 100 have been  written since 1970. Even our old “friend”, France, has had 10 governments in the same timeframe. El Salvador has had 36 written constitutions since 1824.

The protection for our Constitution has been attributed to the first Ten Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights. The 1st Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Pretty plain speaking, as the framers of the Constitution were. The 1st Amendment is a fundamental right of the people and cannot be abridged.

But, what about when two parties claim 1st Amendment Rights to free speech as the parties in this case have? Where is the line drawn? If we look at history, then we can find the answer. When I was (much) younger, Angela Davis was the communist du jour, speaking often at the Berkley campus of UC. Her speeches were radical, insightful, and downright unamerican. I was a patriot and had just joined the military service during Vietnam. To me, her speeches at the time bordered on traitorous activity. She had been arrested several times for her open advocation of communism and Ronald Reagan attempted to have her barred from teaching at any US university. I look back and see that I had a narrow view of an intelligent  and thoughtful person. At the time, she was respected by many intellectuals around the world. 40 years later, she has my respect. And, so do the Irvine 11.

I may not agree with their message. However, I will defend with my life their right to convey their message in a peaceful manner. That is because free speech is fundamental to a free society. While we may be reminded of the old adage that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, that was not the case here. These students, in the best tradition of university protest, made a unique display of demonstration and stood for what they believe in. It does not matter if you or I believe their message. Whatever the message, they had a right to be heard. And, the Orange County District Attorney and the University of California Irvine chose to squelch those rights. We, as a free society, cannot allow that to happen.

What about Michael Oren’s right to speak? Let’s not forget that he was able to complete his speech and, although the prosecution says he did not get to finish the question and answer session afterward, the defense says his real reason for leaving so early was because he wanted to attend the Lakers game. In fact, the defense was barred from showing the jury a photo of Oren with Kobe Bryant. Go figure. The case is in the jury’s hands at this writing.

If you have a view, disparate or concurrent, please comment.