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Legislation Stems from 2003 Abortion Protest

Brown Signs Bill Clarifying Limits, Setting Penalties for Public "Disruption" At or Near a School Campus

August 4, 2011

Governor Brown signed a bill this week that was written in response to a 2003 incident – subsequently contested in a long legal battle – involving anti-abortion protesters displaying a billboard-sized message near a middle school in Rancho Palos Verdes (Los Angeles County).

AB 123, by Assemblymember Tony Mendoza (D-Norwalk), (1) defines a new misdemeanor that would be committed where a person creates a disruption at a school or a site adjacent to a school and the person intends to threaten the immediate physical safety of a student arriving at, attending or leaving the school, and (2) provides that the bill applies to any pupil at a school that has a preschool, kindergarten or grades one through eight.

This bill provides that any person who willfully or knowingly creates a disruption with the intent to threaten the immediate physical safety of K-8 pupils arriving at, attending, or leaving school is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a jail term of up to six months, a fine of up to $500, or both.  Upon a second conviction for this offense, another school interference offense or disturbing the peace, the punishment is a jail term of not less than 10 days and not more than six months, or such a jail term and a fine of up to $500.  For a third conviction, as specified, the minimum jail term shall be 90 days. 

This bill states that it shall not be interpreted to impinge upon the lawful exercise of the constitutional rights of assembly and speech.

A prior version of this bill, AB 2478 (Mendoza, 2010) passed the Senate (23-10) on August 19, 2010.  The bill was effectively identical to AB 123.  Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 2378, stating that the bill did not cover high-school students and that it was partly duplicative of other penal statutes.

Groups supporting AB 123 included the Los Angeles Unified School District, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the California State Sheriffs' Association, the California School Employees Association, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff, the Ocean View School District, the Whittier School District, and the Junior League of California.

According to Assemblymember Mendoza, “On the morning of March 24, 2003, two vehicles driven by members of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBER) drove around a middle school perimeter as students were arriving.  The vehicles included a truck displaying billboard-sized, graphic photographs of aborted fetuses and an escort security vehicle.  Between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m., all 1900 students arrived in the same location - a cul de sac where the vehicles were driving.  Because of the disturbing nature of the photographs, some students became angry, others cried and still others stood and stared, creating a traffic hazard.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies arrived, concluded that the drivers from the CBER had violated Penal Code Section 628.8 - interfering with a school - and asked them to leave.

"The CBER filed a lawsuit contending that school officials and the Sheriff had violated the First and Fourth amendment rights of the Center.  The U.S. District Court entered summary judgment in favor of the school district and the Sheriff.  However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal held that Penal Code Section 628.8, as written, does not allow school officials to contact local law enforcement to stop a person from conveying disrupting messages adjacent to a school where the person's conduct threatens the physical safety of the pupils.  However, the 9th Circuit did acknowledge that the Legislature could possibly draft a constitutionally valid statute to address such circumstances."

Source:  California Legislative Information, Governorís Press Office.