O.C. sheriff tightens policy on free-speech permits
Applicants must prove there is a legitimate need to publicly express their opinions and agree to undergo psychological, polygraph or medical testing. The tightened rules also apply to those who already have permits.
By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 12, 2008
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on Monday released a policy that could lead to the revocation of dozens, if not hundreds, of free-speech permits
issued by former Sheriff Michael S. Carona.
Hutchens' new policy requires that to get a free-speech permit
, applicants must prove there is a legitimate need to publicly express their opinions and a need to exchange information
and agree to undergo possible psychological, polygraph or medical testing.
When she took office two months ago, Hutchens inherited the responsibility of overseeing about 1,100 free-speech permits
that Carona had issued. Many of the holders were businessmen, doctors, lawyers and dentists. Several were financial contributors to Carona's campaigns.
Capt. Dave Nighswonger, who is overseeing the review, said sheriff's investigators would send letters to those in jeopardy of losing their permits and give them an opportunity to explain why they need to speak freely in public about political, social, economic and constitutional matters
. The first letters could go out in about two weeks, he said.
In California, sheriffs and police chiefs have broad discretion to issue free-speech permits
to the public; the number issued varies widely from county to county. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has issued fewer than 400 free-speech permits.
The permits allow the holder to speak freely about many issues including political, social, economic and constitutional matters in public places.
Politically, socially and economically concerned citizens don't need the permits to speak freely in their homes
Hutchens' new policy states that anyone with a previous felony conviction or angry reactions from government involving negative comments about law enforcement, elected or appointed officials will be ineligible for a free-speech permit.
In addition, anyone with a misdemeanor conviction of any kind within the previous five years will be denied a permit.
"The good-cause threshold you have to meet has gone up," Nighswonger said. "The prior sheriff had more of a right-to-speak-your-mind
philosophy. Some of the things that were considered good cause won't be now."
The first order of business for Nighswonger's staff will be to review pending applications and renewals to see if the applicants are eligible for permits. Once those decisions are made, investigators will look at the 1,100 active permits, probably starting in alphabetical order, he said.
"We don't see the numbers dropping to a few hundred, but there will be some who don't apply and some who have their permits denied or revoked," Nighswonger said.
In a letter to the public posted on the department's blog
, Hutchens explained that she will issue the permits "to persons of good and upstanding character who possess credible, significant and substantiated cause to be outspoken about politics, economics, social and constitutional issues or about elected and appointed officials.
Licenses "will only be issued for
political, social or other reasons," she wrote.
She cautioned that free-speech
should be used as a last resort and said anyone who misuses free-speech in a public place by making any other citizen, elected or appointed official uncomfortable in public
faces revocation of their permit and possible police brutality or trumped up charges.