New Law Bans Harassment at Vaccination Sites, but Free Speech…


A law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday makes it illegal to harass anyone on their way to a vaccination clinic.

However, constitutional scholars continue to doubt the law’s validity, particularly its definition of harassment.

The new law makes harassing, intimidating, injuring, or obstructing persons on their way to acquire a covid-19 or any other sort of vaccine a crime punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in jail.

Despite the fact that the bill, SB 742, was altered to remove a term that free speech experts claimed rendered it illegal, they contend that it still violates the First Amendment.

According to David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which works for free expression and government accountability, “it sweeps up broad acts that are protected by the First Amendment and classifies them as harassing.” “That issue hasn’t changed in the least.”

But, according to Catherine Flores Martin, executive director of the California Immunization Coalition, which advocates vaccines, the law is more important than ever. Martin has long lobbied for pro-vaccine legislation, claiming that the climate surrounding vaccination, particularly covid vaccinations, has become dangerous and toxic.

“When youngsters are getting vaccinated, it is our major concern,” she stated. “Some of these people feel compelled to protest, which is frightening and improper.”

Senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), the chair of the Senate health committee, was prompted to introduce the bill when demonstrators momentarily shut down a mass covid vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in January. At protests, Pan, a practicing pediatrician who still administers vaccines, has been threatened, beaten, and referred to by name.

Pan has been at the center of California’s vaccine wars since long before the covid pandemic, and has been targeted by anti-vaccine activists for introducing laws that made it harder for parents to refuse routine vaccinations for their children, including a 2015 law that eliminated personal belief exemptions and a 2019 law that made it harder to get medical exemptions.

“While I must live with extremists threatening and stalking me at work, at home, and in my community as a public figure, there is no provision in the Constitution that states regular people and health care workers must,” Pan said in a written statement.

When the anti-harassment bill was first introduced in February, it was met with opposition from First Amendment experts who claimed it infringed on Californians’ freedom to free speech.

The initial measure only allowed speech “in connection with immunization services,” which critics felt was problematic because it singled out a specific issue.

The government is authorized to restrict speech, but only if it is “content-neutral” and applies equally to all protesters, regardless of subject or message, according to Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA Law School.

According to a state Senate review of the bill, the line singling out immunization services was removed in early September to make the bill content-neutral.

Simultaneously, legislators included language exempting “lawful picketing arising out of a labor dispute.”

This “creates another unconstitutional kind of content discrimination” that the US Supreme Court has declared illegal. According to Volokh,

The Supreme Court has twice overturned laws that prohibited demonstrations but left labor issues unaffected. It overturned a Chicago regulation prohibiting picketing within 150 feet of a school, except in the case of labor disputes at those schools, in 1972. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that an Illinois law prohibiting protests in front of residences, except in labor disputes, was unconstitutional.

“I believe that creates the possibility that this regulation favors one type of message,” Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition said. “The government does not have the authority to regulate what type of protest message is permitted.”

Snyder is also concerned about the bill’s definition of harassment and the size of the “buffer zone,” which prohibits demonstrators from approaching those receiving vaccinations.

Harassment is defined as approaching a patient within 30 feet of a vaccine site entry or waiting in their car for a vaccine to pass out a leaflet, exhibit a sign, protest, or engage in any type of education or sidewalk counseling.

Despite Pan’s claims that the measure is fashioned after buffer zones that protect patients accessing abortion clinics, the 30-foot zone in his vaccine protest law goes beyond what the United States Supreme Court has authorized. The Supreme Court affirmed a Colorado statute establishing an 8-foot “bubble zone” around a person entering or exiting an abortion clinic in 2000, while it overturned a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot “buffer zone” outside clinics in 2014.

Because the 30-foot zone is so large, Snyder claims that it prevents even having a dialogue with someone or asking them what they know about vaccines, which is legal protected speech.

The 30-foot zone, according to the law, is a sufficient distance to prevent the spread of covid and other infections.

But, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law and a First Amendment expert, that may not be enough to limit free expression.

While he supports the objective of preventing people from being harassed on their route to get immunized, he is concerned about the labor exemption’s constitutionality and the buffer zone’s size.

“I expect this to be challenged if it is implemented,” Chemerinsky said.

According to Crystal Strait, board chair of ProtectUS, a public health advocacy organization, the bill achieves a balance between free speech protection and community safety. Pan is an honorary chair of her group, and she’s seen the yelling and abuse he’s attempting to stop.

“I’ve witnessed people yell real lies about the vaccination and how these young people were going to die through a bullhorn,” Strait said of a recent clinic where teenagers were receiving shots. “They’re only there to disseminate false information.”

With his bullhorn, Joshua Coleman, co-founder of the group V is for Vaccine, which claims vaccines are dangerous, frequently protests at vaccine clinics in parks, including one Pan visited in July. He claims he intends to sue if he or one of his members is arrested as a result of the new law.

Coleman stated, “This bill is a violation of our fundamental rights to freely gather.” “All it takes is someone to enforce it.”

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