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Free Speech vs. Pandemic Safety: CHP Will Now Deny Permits For Coronavirus Protests At State Facilities

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The California Highway Patrol will now deny all event permit requests at state facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement issued to CBS13 Tuesday, the agency said: "In the interest of public safety and the health of all Californians during the COVID-19 pandemic, effective immediately the California Highway Patrol will deny any permit requests for events or activities at all state facilities, to include the State Capitol, until public health officials have determined it is safe to gather again."

Frustration over the shelter-in-place order is brewing in Sacramento. The financial losses are hitting hard and people want their voices heard.

This means another rally that had been planned at the Capitol for Wednesday is not getting the green-light from CHP. According to that permit request, it was for a group of 70 people, planning to drive around the capitol grounds in protest of the governor's stay-at-home order.

Sacramento police provide security on the sidewalks and streets around the capitol during events, and that department told CBS13, there is no plan to issue any citations to people exercising their right to free speech, but they will encourage any large groups to maintain social distancing. If things escalate or become violent, they say their approach would change.

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We asked CHP what would happen if a group still decided to show up and protest on Capitol grounds without a permit and were told the situation would be handled "appropriately" and on a case-by-case basis. 

CHP's decision comes a day after a large group gathered at the capitol to protest the statewide stay-at-home order. The CHP did have a presence during the protest but did not issue any citations or make arrests even though protesters congregated outside of their vehicles in large groups.

The permit for that planned protest was granted by the Capitol Protection Unit from CHP. The governor said he thought it was allowed based on protestors staying in their cars.

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"My understanding is the protest that CHP has supported has social distancing, physical distancing, that was allowable on the basis of people being in their vehicles and not congregating as a group," Newsom said.

According to the CHP, the permits for such events are issued to provide safe environments for protests, but "that is not what occurred yesterday, and the CHP has taken that experience into account."

The new rules are already sparking backlash and questions about free speech during a pandemic.

"There's no case law on this. There is no precedent," said Mark Reichel, a Sacramento attorney who has argued in the Supreme Court and is a former Vice President of the Sacramento ACLU.

Reichel said the state has a right to regulate if a protest is causing safety issues.

"It's not the speech or the content, but its the manner in which they were going to do it the state has determined would violate the health emergency that's going on," Reichel said.

The organizer of a protest planned at the capitol on Wednesday told followers via Facebook her permit was denied, but that they should "assemble at their own risk" and stay six feet apart from those outside their household."
This is ahead of a routine press conference from the Governor tomorrow where he's expected to give on update on California's road to recovery.
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