California lawmakers weigh free speech, public safety

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Lawmakers listened and asked questions but offered no concrete solutions Tuesday in the first of several California legislative hearings planned to discuss how to balance free speech rights with public safety.

The hearings arose after a violent clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrats, called for senators to look into potential legislation.

The struggle to facilitate controversial speech protected by the First Amendment while preventing violence is especially acute in California, where the San Francisco Bay Area has become an epicenter for clashes between conservative speakers who support President Donald Trump and left-wing "anti-fascist" demonstrators. The University of California, Berkeley has faced steep bills for law enforcement and security to keep the peace when conservative writers and provocateurs have attempted to speak on campus this year.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said his agency, no stranger to protests, has had to adapt this year as anti-fascist demonstrators look to clash violently with supporters of conservative speakers on and near the University of California, Berkeley campus.

"A new thing for us really was how to police when you have two groups who are coming together potentially to fight, potentially armed with protective gear, padding, shields, weapons," Greenwood said.

In Sacramento, four people were charged in connection with a melee on the grounds of the State Capitol when more than 300 counter-protesters confronted about 30 members of the Traditionalist Workers Party in 2016.

Organizations representing minorities and marginalized groups told senators that hate crimes are increasing against African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, LGBT people and others, and many go unreported.

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro warned lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing against trying to regulate hate speech, saying they must prevent violent demonstrators from having a "heckler's veto" to shut down speech that others don't want to hear.

"There's speech you don't like, there's speech I don't like," Shapiro told lawmakers "But if we can't agree that there's a difference between speech and violence, we're not going to be able to have a free state let alone a free country."

Shapiro blamed anti-fascist protesters for creating $600,000 in security costs when he spoke at an event organized by campus Republicans last month at UC Berkeley.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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