Free Speech Battle Goes Another Round in Santa Ana

Isaac Michaca criticizes Santa Ana council
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Activists showed up in force at Tuesday night’s Santa Ana City Council meeting to protest Mayor Miguel Pulido’s cancellation of the previous meeting over a hat the mayor deemed too offensive to allow in the council chambers, among other issues.

Their anger boiled over when it became clear that they would only be allowed to speak at the end of the meeting, which was late at night. Some of the protesters were young students, and they complained that they were being blocked from participating in a public meeting.

During a staffer’s presentation, over 30 activists paraded into the council chambers — many holding paper sunflowers to represent the city’s government sunshine ordinance — and massed behind a short wall separating the council dais from the public area of the room.

Another resident sitting in the front row shouted for city officials to have the activists moved back because his line of sight was blocked. The activists, some of them young students, refused, and began yelling demands to be heard.

“This is our city Pulido!” one activist shouted. “We have a right to speak!”

The confrontation was the latest chapter in a free speech battle that began when some activists booed and heckled two police officers as they were receiving awards at the first council meeting in September. Afterward, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association penned a letter criticizing the council’s handling of the protesters.

Pulido cancelled the next meeting before it started after he spotted a man wearing a hat saying “Fuck the Police.” When the man refused to leave or take off his hat, the mayor ordered the room cleared, and about 20 people stayed behind to protest what they said was the mayor’s crack down on the right to free speech.

The protesters were threatened with arrest, but most of them stood their ground. After a while, Pulido canceled the meeting, declaring the protesters a threat to decorum, but nobody was arrested.

A Voice of OC video of the incident went viral on social media, garnering over 1 million views and attracting comments with a wide variety of opinions.

Some believed the man, an activist with Santa Ana CopWatch who called himself Bijan, had a First Amendment right to wear the hat, while others agreed with the mayor and said it was too disrespectful to allow.

Later, the American Civil Liberties Union penned a letter to the council asserting that the council’s effort to force Bijan to take off his hat violated his constitutional rights. The letter also cautioned the council against to tread carefully as they consider new decorum rules that give council members greater powers to oust meeting attendees threatening decorum.

In a sign that city leaders have backed off their hardline position, activists with shirts saying “Fuck the Police” on the front and “Fuck the Pulido” on the back were allowed into the meeting without any issue. 

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento went so far as to apologize for the previous meeting, saying that city leaders had forgotten about the First Amendment right to free speech. He held up a pocket copy of the U.S. constitution and read the First Amendment aloud.

He then asked the city clerk to pass one out to each council member and staff as a reminder, drawing applause from activists.

“It is a very sacred passage,” Sarmiento said. “That speech that may be vile to us, is exactly what we’re supposed to protect.”

Councilman Sal Tinajero had a different reaction, saying that at the previous meeting parents refused to bring their children into the chambers because of the offensive language on Bijan’s hat. He also pointed out that a knife was left behind.

“What about their rights?” Tinajero said. “We as the Latino community, predominantly Latino community, have to show we’re better than that.” 

Worries about public safety after the knife was found also led to new security measures. Security guards searched bags and waved metal detectors over people before they entered the council chambers.

After a short recess following the activists’ disruption of the meeting, city leaders came to a compromise with the group and gave time to three public speakers.

Alitzel Velasco, an eighth grader from MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School, said that she was offended by the mayor’s cancellation of the previous meeting and pushing general public comments to the end of Tuesday night’s meeting.

“It’s all because you don’t want us to talk about what happened last week,” Velasco said.

“I want to hold you guys accountable,” Isaac Michaca, a junior at Segerstrom High School, told the council. “By you guys putting us at the very end, you’re not allowing us to participate.”

A handful of residents criticized the activists’ behavior as unacceptable, particularly the disruption of the meeting and the profanity-laced apparel.

“Yeah, you have the right, but it doesn’t mean you should,” said longtime city resident Debbie McEwen. 

Abraham Medina, a project director for Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, said the activists were there to address the FBI civil rights investigation into the police department after police beating of undocumented immigrant Edgar Vargas was caught on video.

Medina also said they wanted to address the referral of undocumented immigrant Samuel Sixtos to federal immigration authorities in violation of the Trust Act.

And finally, Medina said activists wanted to raise the issue of the city’s investigative report into Pulido’s dealings with a city contractor. 

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho confirmed that council members at the closed session part of the previous meeting had voted 5-1 to release the city report,  which found that Pulido likely violated the state’s felony conflict of interest law when he voted to award a contract to a vendor that had engaged in a property swap with the mayor.

Tinajero, who has opposed releasing the report while the Orange County District Attorney’s office is investigating the allegations, was the only no vote. The 5-1 vote was reaffirmed again at Tuesday night’s meeting, Carvalho said.

Before Carvalho could make her announcement, Pulido spotted the man with the hat and started a confrontation that ended with the public session of the meeting cancelled before it started.

Medina alleged that Pulido’s cancellation of the meeting was a “political distraction” to deflect attention away from the report.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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