San Bernardino Bills Activists, Sparking Anger

Jonathan Abrams, Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2007

How much does free speech cost? Exactly $17,674.06, according to Latino activist Armando Navarro, who received a bill from the city of San Bernardino.

The tab stems from a March 17 pro-immigrant rally that attracted about 1,000 people.

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But Navarro said the group was blindsided with the bill for “extraordinary services” from the Police Department. It turns out that the city won’t actually enforce collection of the bill, but Navarro is insisting on an apology.

The bill mostly covers the services of about 40 police officers, a captain and motorcycles to monitor the rally, which was also attended by counterdemonstrators.

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“It smacks of racism and corrupted local politics,” said Navarro. “At no time was there any mention of having to pay anything for exercising our freedom-of-speech rights.”

City Atty. Jim Penman, who wrote up the bill at the request of Police Chief Michael A. Billdt, said he is caught in the middle of the fracas.

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Penman added that protesters billed in the past had never paid the fee and said the city would not seek legal action if it is left unpaid.

Penman should ensure that the billing is not enforced, said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.

“If it’s really, literally just pure symbolism for them to be billed, then I think it’s ridiculous, but I don’t think it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “But if there comes a time when they hold a later rally and they say he still owes fees, then it would be problematic.”

Navarro also alleged that the organizers were discriminated against in other ways.

He said that the bill was delivered the day of the rally and that he had no time to respond to it. Penman insisted it was hand-delivered to Navarro’s home mailbox the day before.

The nearly 100 counter-demonstrators at the rally were not billed because they did not file a permit.

Navarro said that Wednesday was the first time he heard Penman say the billing would not be enforced, but he still wants the public apology.

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