Many Occupy L.A. protesters arrested during demonstrations in recent months are being offered a unique chance to avoid court trials: pay $355 to a private company for a lesson in free speech.
Los Angeles Chief Deputy City Atty. William Carter said the city won't press charges against protesters who complete the educational program offered by American Justice Associates.
He said the program, which may include lectures by attorneys and retired judges, is being offered to people with no other criminal history and who were arrested on low-level misdemeanor offenses, such as failure to disperse.
There have been more than 350 arrests at Occupy demonstrations in Los Angeles since protesters first set up camp outside City Hall in October.
The most recent arrests occurred last weekend, when six protesters climbed a wall and jumped onto the City Hall lawn, which has been fenced off for rehabilitation since police cleared the encampment Nov. 30.
Carter said the free-speech class will save the city money and teach protesters the nuances of the law.
"The 1st Amendment is not absolute," he said, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled government can regulate when, where and how free speech can be exercised.
But a civil rights attorney who has worked closely with the protesters called the class "patronizing," and said the demonstrators who were arrested are the last people needing free-speech training.
"There they were exercising their 1st Amendment, their lawful right to protest nonviolently," said attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker.
Several Occupy protesters, many of whom are fueled by anger at what they perceive as corporate greed and the increased privatization of public services, have noted the irony of being asked to pay a private contractor for the program. The tuition will go to the company, not the city, officials say.
In the past, first-time offenders arrested in L.A. protests were typically granted an informal hearing at the city attorney's office.
City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has taken a tougher approach. In several instances, he has gone to court to prosecute protesters, especially if they had tied up traffic or police.
This year, the city has filed charges against some 50 Occupy protesters arrested on more serious offenses or who have criminal records.
But prosecuting the remaining protesters arrested on lesser charges would unduly burden the city attorney's office, said Trutanich's chief legal advisor, Curt Livesay. The office has seen its budget cut 25% in recent years.
The city often turns to privately run pretrial diversion programs like the one offered by American Justice Associates, Livesay said. The programs have different themes, depending on the low-level offenses involved. The city is likely to divert more cases to such classes given overcrowding in jails, he said.
First-time arrestees at other protests this year, including antiwar demonstrations and protests against tuition hikes, also may be offered a chance to enroll in the free-speech diversion program, Carter said.
Anderson-Barker said many Occupy protesters had already paid for their actions, and shouldn't be subjected to a costly class.
The bulk of Occupy protesters — those who were arrested on the night of the LAPD eviction — were held on at least $5,000 bail and locked up for two days.
"Spending that much time in jail was definitely punishment enough," she said.