Four men wearing Nazi lapel pins who were refused service and evicted from a German restaurant in Torrance won a legal victory Thursday when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that their civil rights were violated.
Judge Kurt J. Lewin ruled that the Alpine Village restaurant was in conflict with the First Amendment to the Constitution and state civil rights laws when it evicted the men two years ago. The four Los Angeles-area residents had been wearing swastika pins when they entered the restaurant during an Oktoberfest celebration.
When asked to remove the pins or leave, the men refused, resulting in an altercation with restaurant employees that caused the would-be diners to be arrested, attorneys said.
“We thought it was an important case under the (1959) Unruh Civil Rights Act,” said attorney Carol Sobel, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Joe Fields, 24, of San Pedro, and three other plaintiffs who support white-supremacist doctrines.
‘Full and Equal Basis’
The Unruh Act requires that every publicly operated business in California be open “on a full and equal basis to everybody,” Sobel said, meaning that restaurants do not have the right to refuse service to anyone simply because that patron may be wearing a political symbol.
“When a symbol is representative of a creed, albeit a despicable creed, it is necessarily protected” by the Unruh Act and the constitutional guarantee of free expression, she said.
In his ruling, Lewin said, however, that the Nazi sympathizers may have forfeited some of their rights to damages by getting into a shouting match with restaurant employees after they were asked to leave. Attorneys said the amount of damages--the men had asked for $10,000 each to settle the case out of court--would be determined by a jury trial in coming months.
“We didn’t totally lose,” said attorney Julia Tachikawa, representing restaurant owners Hans and Terri Rotter. “Even if we did not have a right to ask them to remove the swastika pins . . . that doesn’t give them a license to create a disturbance.”
Allege Racial Slurs
Tachikawa said sworn testimony accused the men of yelling racial slurs at a black restaurant host who asked them to put away the swastikas or leave. “They said, ‘You nigger, I’m not going to do what a nigger tells me to do,’ ” Tachikawa said. “They came there intent on causing a disturbance . . . or setting up this (legal) case.”
She said the restaurant owners are strong anti-Nazis who once had to fight a plan by the Ku Klux Klan to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday in their restaurant.
A year ago, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution commending their refusal to serve the four men. That presentation was marred by a scuffle between Jewish activists and neo-Nazis, including Fields, whose shirt was reportedly ripped as someone tried to remove his Nazi pin.
Thursday’s ruling may be appealed by the restaurant owners even before damages are decided, Tachikawa said.
Exercising a Right
“We still believe we were exercising a legal right to eject them,” the attorney said, citing constitutional guarantees of “freedom from association.” That means that a German business owner has the right to keep himself free from association, or perceived association, with Nazi groups, she said.
“We’re not trying to kick the Nazis out,” Tachikawa said. “We’re just saying, ‘Please don’t display the Nazi insignia.’ There’s a distinction between freedom of expression and inflammatory behavior.”
Last year, Fields identified himself to reporters as a member of the National Socialist American Workers Party, an organization supporting Nazi doctrines. But on Thursday, he denied belonging to any formal Nazi group, according to Sobel.
Others who wore swastikas to the restaurant, included Stan Witek, 54, of Los Angeles, Hal Follin, 28, of Anaheim, and Gene Loven, who has moved from the area and is no longer involved in the case, Sobel said.