Scientology protests prompt new Riverside County law
Reporting from Riverside — Protesters targeting a Church of Scientology compound near Hemet now face stricter limits on how they can conduct demonstrations, according to a new ordinance adopted Tuesday by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.
The measure, which critics say violates the 1st Amendment and gives the church special treatment, requires anyone protesting near private residences to stay at least 30 feet from the property line.
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Graham Berry, a lawyer and one of the protesters, told the board that the ordinance “does not pass constitutional muster.”
“It is vague, ambiguous and unenforceable,” he said.
The ordinance, which applies to all unincorporated county areas, was proposed by Supervisor Jeff Stone last November in reaction to what he said were trespassing and threats of violence by opponents of Scientology at the Gilman Hot Springs location.
Small groups of demonstrators often gather outside the gates of Golden Era Productions, which produces movies and CDs for the Church of Scientology, to protest what they say is an abusive religious cult. The compound is home to roughly 500 church employees. When protesters show up, church officials usually call the authorities.
Board restricts pickets to 30 feet from property
In a 4-1 vote — with Supervisor Bob Buster dissenting — the board formally adopted the measure, which went through at least three revisions and repeated debate after board chairman Jeff Stone first introduced it in November.
The original anti-picketing proposal called for limiting demonstrations in residential areas to 300 feet or more from a target’s home. But 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 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.
Walls said the new Riverside County ordinance, which takes effect in 30 days, is modeled after similar anti-picketing measures in San Diego County, the city of San Diego and the city of Riverside.
“This ordinance is even narrower than the one in San Diego County. It only regulates picketing 30 feet from the property line and exempts sidewalks across the street (from a targeted residence),” Walls said. “The ordinance should satisfy legal challenges.”
Opponents of the measure suggested Stone carried the ordinance out of favor for the Church of Scientology, whose 500-acre compound near Hemet has been the target of a string of protests since last fall.
When [Jeff Stone] introduced the measure in November, the supervisor said the county needed to take steps to limit demonstrations that threaten the comfort and safety of people inside their homes.
He cited recent protests near the Church of Scientology’s Hemet facility, known as “Gold Base,” as an example. The facility straddles either side of state Route 79 and combines the church’s Golden Era Production studios with residential dwellings.
Some protesters identified themselves as members of Anonymous, an international network of anti-Scientology activists who began demonstrating outside church facilities, often in masks, more than a year ago.
Some protesters told the board the anti-picketing measure will make it next to impossible to demonstrate outside the compound in a meaningful way. There is no sidewalk outside the facility’s entrance where protesters can assemble, leaving only a gutter or roadway for them to use.
When two protesters tried to stand in the compound entrance with signs a week ago, Riverside County sheriff’s deputies arrested them for trespassing.
Riverside County supervisors OK twice-revised picketing ordinance
“I can’t support this ordinance,” said [Bob] Buster, the only supervisor who voted against it. “I hope you can clarify it if it does go into effect, because it seems to me it is going to be really a problem for everybody to try and interpret, and eventually you are going to spend a lot of money in court.”
Samuel Alhadeff, an attorney representing Golden Era, has told supervisors the restrictions are needed to protect the privacy and safety of roughly 500 church members who reside on a 700-acre Golden Era compound near Hemet.
Small groups of protesters have targeted the Gilman Hot Springs campus, which includes film studios, staff apartments, offices and recreational amenities. They say they are picketing church abuses of members who reside there, allegations that church representatives say are lies.
Two protesters were arrested outside the compound’s entrance last week on allegations of trespassing and another one on suspicion of vandalism for trampling a flowerbed.
County Counsel Pamela Walls said Tuesday that the ordinance, if passed, would not have applied to those and other protests at the compound. Those demonstrations do not fit its definition of targeted residential picketing, she said.
Tommy Davis, spokesman for the Church of Scientology International and a resident at the Gilman Hot Springs campus, said after the ordinance passed that he did not know how it will be enforced. He said it offers peace of mind, though, and could help alleviate harassment of residents.
But Buster said without a clear case demonstrating the need for the ordinance, it needlessly constrains free speech.
Regarding alleged abuse at the Scientology compound, see: