L.A. Violated Leaflet Distributor’s Rights, U.S. Appeals Court Rules : Freedom: Case stems from 1983 regulations imposing limits on dissemination of handbills in downtown park.


Nearly a decade after the city of Los Angeles enacted regulations specifically designed to prevent a Bell man from distributing leaflets in a downtown park, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously Friday that the city violated his constitutional rights.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that August, 1983, regulations aimed at curbing Jack Gerritsen’s dissemination of handbills critical of the Mexican government in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Park served no legitimate city interest.

In fact, the city’s actions represented “precisely the type of viewpoint censorship which the Constitution seeks to prevent,” wrote Appellate Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, whose opinion was joined by Judges Charles Wiggins and Edward Leavy.


Their ruling overturned decisions by federal trial judges in Los Angeles dismissing Gerritsen’s suit and will result in a new hearing to determine to what extent Gerritsen was damaged.

Gerritsen, who acted as his own lawyer, testified in earlier hearings that he had been harassed, verbally intimidated and arrested by park security guards, Mexican Consulate security officers and Los Angeles police officers. The city claimed that all the altercations were provoked by Gerritsen, who was described as an uncontrollable protester.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Carol Sobel hailed the decision: “This reaffirms what Justice (William J.) Brennan said 30 years ago, which is that ‘handbilling’ is the classic means of expression of political views in this country from Thomas Paine to the present.”

Gerritsen, 57, said in an interview that he was happy to have won the handbilling case. But he said he was disappointed that he had lost a separate challenge seeking permission to hang banners bearing political messages across city streets and an attempt to overturn his 1989 conviction for disturbing the peace during a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Lincoln Park.

The former currency exchange dealer said he has been detained by the police an average of eight or nine times a year for the past decade and convicted several times on a variety of what he called “trumped-up charges.” Just a few weeks ago, Gerritsen said, a municipal judge sentenced him to 240 days in County Jail for incidents stemming from a protest he lodged against the Bell Gardens Police Department. He has not started serving the term.

The litigious Gerritsen said he began distributing handbills outside the Mexican Consulate more than a decade ago after he was detained and mistreated for three days at the same Rosarito Beach jail where a Los Angeles man recently was killed. In that early instance, Gerritsen said he had been incarcerated because local authorities objected to leaflets he was distributing. The leaflets predicted--accurately--the devaluation of the Mexican peso.


At the time Gerritsen became a self-styled activist, the Mexican Consulate was in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Park, which surrounds the Olvera Street shopping area.

Gerritsen estimated that he has distributed more than 50,000 handbills there, many of them attacking the Mexican government as a human rights violator. Others have said “Mexico--World Class Drug Pusher.”

In August, 1983, the city’s Board of Recreation and Parks enacted new restrictions on distributing handbills, which local officials acknowledged were aimed at Gerritsen. The ordinance prohibited distribution of literature within a certain area marked by blue lines in the park and said permits would be required to distribute handbills in other parts of the park.

City officials allege that they stopped enforcing the law after only a few months, based on advice from the city attorney’s office. But the regulations were never repealed, the appeals court noted.

Gerritsen filed suit, claiming that the regulations violated his 1st Amendment free speech rights. A federal trial judge dismissed the suit, agreeing with the city that the regulations were not being enforced.

But on Friday, Judge Nelson ruled that the lower court ruling was clearly erroneous. “Gerritsen testified that park officials and security guards’ enforcement of the policy toward him had a chilling effect on his protest activity,” the judge wrote.


The blue-line areas constitute a “public forum” and as such they must be open to anyone to express his or her beliefs, Nelson wrote.

Los Angeles officials asserted that the city had a need to keep the area around the consulate safe, to preserve the historic quality of the Olvera Street area and to avoid congestion.

“We concede that these interests are substantial, but we question the city’s manner of achieving them,” Nelson wrote. “While the ban is narrow in its reach, in that it affects only these specific areas, courts rarely have upheld complete bans on a category of 1st Amendment expression.”

Deputy City Atty. Janet G. Bogigian maintained Friday that the city policies were never enforced. She said she was pleased that the city’s policy on banners was upheld.

That policy restricts banners hung on city streets to those “announcing events in the civic or public interest.” Judge Nelson said that since all of Gerritsen’s banner applications expressed political beliefs or greetings, the city was entitled to reject them.

That is a controversial interpretation of the law. USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said that by permitting banners to be hung, the city had created another type of public forum.


“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that once a limited public forum is created, government officials can’t regulate based on subject matter,” Chemerinsky said.