Riverside, California - The Riverside County Board of Supervisors tentatively approved an ordinance Tuesday to restrict residential picketing to 30 feet or more from a person's property.
In a 4-1 vote - with Supervisor Bob Buster dissenting - the board accepted the final draft of the proposed measure, which is expected to be formally adopted next Tuesday.
"This ordinance reduces the risk of a violent confrontation and the likelihood of residents becoming captives in their own homes, where they should enjoy tranquility," said board Chairman Jeff Stone, who first proposed the measure in November.
The original anti-picketing proposal called for limiting demonstrations in residential areas to 300 feet or more from a target's home. Stone withdrew the measure after it became clear he would not gain unanimous board support.
The supervisor modified the ordinance in January to restrict picketing to 50 feet or more from a resident's property line in unincorporated communities. However, opposition by colleagues Buster and Roy Wilson prompted Stone to refer the matter to the county counsel's office and sheriff's department for further review.
The current measure was drafted by County Counsel Pamela Walls, with input from sheriff's officials.
The original proposal stemmed, in part, from complaints by the Church of Scientology regarding protests outside its 500-acre "Gold Base" compound near Hemet. The facility combines the church's "Golden Era" production studios with residential dwellings on either side of state Route 79.
Church officials described feeling threatened by the half-dozen or so picketers who gathered outside Gold Base's front gates last fall, shouting anti-church slogans and carrying signs condemning the church for alleged abuses. One person was arrested.
Church officials apparently approached Stone, in whose district the compound is located, about curbing the demonstrations, which were characterized as being carried out by members of a hate group.
Some protesters identified themselves as members of Anonymous, an international network of anti-Scientology activists who began protesting outside church facilities, often in masks, more than a year ago. The protesters criticize the church for alleged anti-gay rhetoric and claim the church is holding people in virtual bondage.
"This ordinance is a crock," Graham Berry, an attorney and anti-Scientology protester, told the board. "There is no interference with residential tranquility. This ordinance is directed at a group of people trying to picket against crime and abuse."
A Perris resident, Lira Bishop, told the board she had not been involved in the anti-church demonstrations but worried about the implications of limiting freedom of speech. Bishop questioned Stone's ties to Church of Scientology lawyer Sam Alhadeff, who has contributed money to the supervisor's political campaigns.
"As a member of the public, I believe Supervisor Stone's motivations behind the ordinance are in question," Bishop said. "I question his treatment of Mr. Alhadeff and the church, and his unwillingness to consider the protesters' concerns. From my vantage point, this ordinance has all the earmarks of a quid pro quo. It reeks of Chicago-style politics."
Stone responded that he had disclosed his receipt of contributions from Alhadeff in campaign filings. He said he had used the attorney's services "long before I was a supervisor."
Alhadeff briefly addressed the board, denying any involvement in drafting the ordinance and telling the supervisors that he and his law partners were "proud of having given to the causes and people we believe in."
"I'm proud of you for having stuck in there," Alhadeff said. "This is not designed to protect one group or another."
According to the county counsel's office, the anti-picketing ordinance is akin to laws on the books in Palm Desert, the city of Riverside and San Diego County. The time, place and manner of restricting residential picketing in those locations have withstood scrutiny by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court, according to Walls.
Buster and Wilson expressed concern last month that the proposed ordinance would effectively negate any meaningful protests outside Gold Base because of how the facility is configured.
Walls assured the board and the anti-Scientology protesters who showed up for Tuesday's vote that the new ordinance would not prevent demonstrations at the church compound, as long as protesters do not target a specific residence on the property.
In voting against the measure, Buster questioned the need for another law when there was no indication residents in unincorporated communities had been impacted by picketing.
"If there's a reason for the ordinance, I haven't seen it yet," Buster said. "I assumed we would get somebody in here who would say `Yes, I was disturbed by protesters and impeded from getting in and out of my house or apartment. I felt physically frightened in some way.' But no one did.
"If there's a clear showing that other laws are not sufficient to deal with the issue, then there's justification for this. There should be an indication that present ordinances are not adequate."