Days after the California Highway Patrol banned demonstrations at the state Capitol and other state properties because of coronavirus fears, a federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed in Sacramento accusing Gov. Gavin Newsom and the CHP of a “gross abuse of their power.”
The suit, filed jointly by an employee of a Sacramento gun store and a Republican congressional candidate, claims their applications for permits to hold demonstrations at the Capitol were both rejected by the CHP after Newsom ordered the agency to halt issuing such permits following a boisterous April 20 demonstration against the governor’s stay-at-home order.
Ron Givens, the chief firearms instructor for the Sacramento Gun Club, says in the suit that California Department of Justice background checks for gun buyers that must be completed within 30 days are being delayed “under the guise of a public health emergency” and that he wanted to hold a protest over the issue.
“The CADOJ traditionally completes these within 10 days,” the suit says. “During the COVID-19 outbreak, many customers purchased firearms from Given’s place of employment, The Sacramento Gun Club.
“Many of the firearm purchases by customers were motivated by heightened need for personal safety during a pandemic and concerns that county sheriffs, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff, might shut down gun stores during the pandemic.”
Newsom has said decisions on whether gun stores remain open during the COVID-19 emergency are a matter for local sheriff’s officials, a stance that prompted a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association.
Givens said in the suit that he submitted a permit application last Wednesday for a protest.
The CHP banned such protests last week after hundreds of demonstrators converged on the Capitol to demand Newsom reopen the state’s businesses and schools. Most were not wearing protective masks or gloves, and gathered close together to listen to speeches and watch a convoy of vehicles circling the Capitol grounds.
Givens contends he was not planning that type of protest.
“In Givens’ permit application, he stated his plans to abide by the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, and designated the entire grounds for the State Capitol Building for the protest, to ensure that he and other protesters had enough space for social distancing (i.e. a minimum of six feet between households),” the suit says. “After the application was submitted, a CHP officer reached out to Givens to verify his identity.
“The officer reached out again on the morning of April 24, 2020, inquiring as to why Givens required the entirety of the State Capitol Building grounds for his protest. Givens explained that he required sufficient space for all of his fellow protesters to maintain social distancing. The officer agreed with Givens that upon that basis, the request was a good idea.”
Despite that, the CHP later that day refused to issue the permit, the suit says.
“By banning protests generally, and denying Givens’ permit specifically, Defendants have deprived Givens of the opportunity for airing his grievances against the government, including the State’s failure to conduct timely background checks for those wishing to purchase a gun and restrictions on speech activities,” the suit says. “Because the protest seeks to challenge Defendants’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak, it cannot be delayed until after the threat of that outbreak subsides and the State Order is lifted.
“By the time that has occurred, there will presumably be no need for any protest, as Defendants will have resumed processing background checks.”
The CHP declined to comment Monday on pending litigation.
Givens’ co-plaintiff in the lawsuit is Chris Bish, who is challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui in the 6th congressional district race and who spoke at last week’s protest at the Capitol.
Bish says in the suit that she applied last Thursday to hold a May 2 rally at the Capitol to protest Newsom’s stay-at-home order and that she, too, planned “to practice social distancing and wear masks.”
The suit was filed by San Francisco attorneys D. Gill Sperlein and Harmeet Dhillon.
Dhillon is a conservative Republican lawyer who earlier filed an unsuccessful challenge to Newsom’s order on behalf of Southern California churches that wanted to continue holding services.
A separate suit filed by other attorneys on behalf of a Lodi church last week is pending in federal court in Sacramento.
The suit filed Monday over the CHP permits contends Newsom’s restrictions violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and notes that the Capitol grounds typically host varied protests.
“The grounds of the State Capitol Building are the most important and widely used public forum in California,” the suit says. “It is where legislators meet, and therefore, the closest that protesters may physically get to having their grievances actually heard by high-level government officials.”
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