Is a new California law limiting protests at COVID vaccine centers constitutional?

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Protest at the Doger Statium COVID vaccination site. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times
Protest at the Doger Statium COVID vaccination site. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times

A proposal sailing through the California Legislature that aims to stop people from getting harassed outside vaccination sites is raising alarms among some 1st Amendment experts.

If enacted, Senate Bill 742 would make it punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a maximum fine of $1,000 to intimidate, threaten, harass or prevent people from getting a vaccine against COVID-19 or any other disease on their way to a vaccination site.

It’s worse than overkill, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of 1st Amendment law at UCLA.

“That law is clearly unconstitutional,” Volokh said.

He has two primary concerns with the proposal:

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A 30-foot zone around a person getting a vaccine is bigger than the court would allow, Volokh believes.

His second concern is that the bill specifically prohibits someone from leafletting or talking to someone only about vaccines.

That violates the 1st Amendment, Volokh said, because it targets certain content. Someone could hand out an anti-war or anti-fur leaflet and not run afoul of the law, he said.

“I think it’s pretty shocking that a state legislature would try to enact this kind of restriction on fully protected speech this way,” Volokh said.

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