Wednesday, July 20, 2011

City's 'Nazi salute' appeal beyond absurd

NOTE TO READER: I wanted to repost Pete Nichols' op-ed when it came out in late June, but other events sidelined me. So here it is, still timely with the Supreme Court supposedly considering whether to listen to the City's appeal of the 14 - 0 decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Robert Norse "Nazi" Salute Case. They will issue their decision in September as to which cases they will hear. I want to add that I don't believe I have ever had any contact with Mr. Nichols, and no one from the Norse legal team was contacted prior to this op-ed piece. Apparently, Mr. Nichols was just moved enough by the issue to write and submit this piece. ---Becky Johnson, Ed.

Peter Nichols: City's 'Nazi salute' appeal beyond absurd



Hard to believe, but the city of Santa Cruz is actually appealing its Robert Norse Nazi-salute case to the highest court in the land. There it was, in black and white, "City files Supreme Court appeal" Sentinel, June 10, 2011.

City leaders have already flushed $150,000 down the drain defending a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a mayoral action that was questionable at best. Choosing to spend more money on a highly specialized read: expensive Washington, D.C., attorney in the face of overwhelming doubts the court will even consider the case is throwing good money after bad.

The city argues that Norse's Nazi salute during the March 12, 2002, council meeting was a "hate gesture." The petition declares, "... broad protections of the First Amendment do not extend to hate gestures [that disrupt proceedings] made during a city council meeting." Richard Ruda, the attorney, described the gesture as "insulting and very offensive" and suggested that the offended have the right to evict the offender.

In the context of a governance protest, however, it's a stretch to claim a Nazi salute is a hate gesture and very offensive. Insulting to council members, perhaps, since it suggests that they aren't operating democratically. But that's all in the eye of the beholder, and as a mocking gesture, it warrants full protection.

Fortunately for those of us who weren't present, there's a five-minute video on Google Search: nazi+salute+2002. After one protesting citizen is asked to leave, Mayor Christopher Krohn insists that another person -- expecting to address the council -- sit down, also under threat of removal. As she leaves the podium, Norse can be seen on the sidelines raising his left arm in the direction of the council. A real Nazi salute would have been far more demonstrative with the right arm. It was a silent gesture, lasting about a second and barely noticed. It was Nazi salute light. For the next 10 seconds the meeting continued orderly. The salute was not disruptive.

The disruption began when Councilman Tim Fitzmaurice, who saw the gesture, over-reacted, expressed objection and insisted Norse be removed from the chamber. Mayor Krohn, who hadn't noticed, asked Norse to leave. Norse objected briefly before being led away in handcuffs. That prompted the filing of his First Amendment lawsuit.

It's unknown what happened before the video begins. Since it was taped at the end of a public comments period, Fitzmaurice may have grown tired of the complaints or simply fed up with Norse's persistent criticism. That's not uncommon with elected officials who lack the patience to deal with the cumbersome nature of democracy e.g., having to listen to people complain.

Local governing bodies often deal with disruptions. But skilled facilitators, sensitive to the public's needs, rarely have difficulties keeping order. One thing's clear, however: Had Fitzmaurice simply ignored the gesture, nobody would have given it another thought. And that is what should have happened.

So now, the City Council is asking the likes of Alito, Scalia, Roberts, and Justice Clarence Thomas, of all people, to intervene on their behalf because they couldn't control a meeting in 2002.

This is not a case about hate speech or about out-of-control meetings. It is about free speech, something Santa Cruz -- of all communities -- should strongly support rather than seek to stifle. Furthermore, this council should not perpetuate the folly of previous councils.

Appealing this matter to the Supreme Court is beyond absurd.

Peter Nichols is a Larkin Valley resident whose all-time favorite city is Santa Cruz.

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