Protesters balk at possible Aurora home-picketing restrictions set off by GEO warden demonstration

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Protesters in the southeast Aurora Tollgate neighborhood Thursday night are targeting the home of Johnny Choate. Choate is the top official of the Aurora GEO ICE prison, a detention center for illegal immigrants. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | One month after nearly 200 protesters gathered outside the home of a local detention facility warden, Aurora City Council members are considering a proposal to restrict when and where people can protest in the city.

Three council members gave tentative approval to a proposed amendment Thursday that seeks to elaborate on a 19-year-old city law stipulating how and where protesters can picket in residential neighborhoods.

The code revision comes 35 days after protesters with local activist groups Denver Communists and Abolish ICE Denver waved signs and chanted in front of the southeast Aurora home of Johnny Choate, who is the warden of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in north Aurora. The detention center is privately owned and operated by The GEO Group Inc.

The proposal drew quick rebuke from anti-GEO activists who participated in protests that prompted the new push for restrictions.

James Rotten, a spokesman for Denver Communists, said the group would double down on protests in the city if the amendment were to be added to city code.

“We oppose this attempt to repress free speech and, should it pass, we look forward to demonstrating that opposition outside another ICE official’s house,” Rotten wrote in an email. “Protests rarely pose a threat to public safety, as this bill claims, but they do pose a threat to public indifference to injustice. That is what the city of Aurora seeks to protect here—indifference to the concentration camp in our backyard.”

Councilwoman Francoise Bergan, who is currently up for re-election, drafted the amendment in response to the recent protest near East Chenango Drive and South Himalaya Street in the Tollgate Crossing neighborhood.

“I had so many residents that contacted me via email, texting, on Next Door, that I just felt that something had to be addressed,” Bergan said. ” … It was very scary I think for a lot of the residents.”

Bergan, whose ward encompasses the area where the protest occurred, said she received messages from some two dozen constituents, several of whom claimed sprinkler heads in their yards had been tampered with, and their flower beds trampled.

If passed by the full council, the amendment would prohibit “targeted picketing,” which refers to “picketing with or without signs that is specifically directed toward or focused on a residence, or one or more occupants of the residence, and that takes place on that portion of a sidewalk or street in front of the residence, or on the sidewalks or street in front of one adjacent structure on either side the targeted residence, or within 50 feet on either side of the targeted residence,” according to proposed language drafted by city attorneys. 

The amendment would also preclude “repeated marching” of a similar nature. 

The latter clause irked Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.

“I don’t see how the city could possibly justify such a broad prohibition of First Amendment activity,” Silverstein wrote in an email. ” … It allows stationery picketing in the residential area (as long as it were not directed at a particular residence) but prohibits that picketing if the participants march as they carry signs.  The authors of this proposal need to go back to the drawing board.”

The city added a residential picketing ordinance to local code in 2000, according to city documents. Arapahoe County passed a similar ordinance in June of the same year, and Centennial passed a related measure five years later. Colorado lawmakers passed a statewide statute on residential picketing in 2008. That measure imposed moderate restrictions on picketing homes. The measure was widely opposed by conservative state legislators.

The new amendment in Aurora seeks to clarify the intent of the original measure and “create additional time, place, and manner restrictions to further protect residents of Aurora, consistent with the First Amendment,” according to city documents.

Allison Hiltz, who serves as chairwoman of the public safety committee, said that while she agrees with the spirit of the amendment, she’s cautious of its potential implications.

“I think people deserve to feel safe in their homes and I don’t think that’s a very debatable intent,” she said. “But I’ve got questions about how broad in scope this would go.”

Hiltz said she was particularly concerned about prohibiting families from holding vigils in residential neighborhoods following contentious interactions with police.

The measure would specifically prevent people from protesting in residentially zoned areas after sundown, obstructing residential streets, or disobeying commands given by police or firefighters.

Exemptions to the proposal include “going door to door to proselytize” and “picketing while marching, without stopping in front of or on either side of a residence, over a continuous and progressive route,” according to the proposed language. 

If passed, people found in violation of the amended ordinance could face fines of up to $2,650 and having to perform community service.

Police arrested three people at the September protest on suspicion of obstructing a police officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Aurora Police Division Chief Vanessa Wilson said officers elected not to engage with more protesters at the demonstration in a calculated effort to maintain the peace.

“I think that it could have incited violence,” Wilson said. “It’s something that I know is a nuisance, you know, damaging a sprinkler head or this that and the other thing … It could have turned into a melee, with an officer injured or a citizen injured, so I think you have to kind of weigh those balances.”

Wilson said 50 officers were tasked with patrolling approximately 175 protesters at the event.

City attorneys asserted the U.S. Supreme Court has signed off on similar targeted picketing ordinances across the country, and that case law supports such measures. 

“The changes proposed are in line with other similar ordinances that have been upheld by courts across the United States,” city staffers wrote.

A 1980 Supreme Court decision struck down an Illinois state law that barred residential picketing but allowed such protesting at workplaces during labor disputes. In a 6-3 vote, justices argued the law violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Eight years later, the Supreme Court upheld a city ordinance in Wisconsin intended to curb protests in front of the home of a local doctor who had performed abortions. In another 6-3 ruling, justices affirmed the narrowly tailored measure upheld the spirit of the First Amendment. The court also found that the measure maintained avenues for alternative means of messaging, which local city attorneys tacked onto the proposed Aurora language.

“There are ample alternative means of communication available to those who choose to engage in picketing outside a person’s residence,” city staffers wrote.

Attorneys pointed to additional precedent set in courts in North Dakota and New Mexico following protests in front of homes owned by additional doctors who performed abortions. 

A representative from Abolish ICE Denver echoed criticism by Denver Communists.

“The APD restricted our rights to free speech when they kettled and rerouted us during the Choate march, and now the public safety committee is wasting time and money with this legislation,” Matthew Wozniak, a spokesman for Abolish ICE Denver, said in a statement. “We will not be silenced and will not stop this conversation until all the camps are closed.”

The measure will now be forwarded to a future council study study session for further discussion.

Sentinel Staff Writer Grant Stringer contributed to this story.