Orem adopts new ordinance regulating picketing as anti-mask protesters target the governor’s home

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters walk off after gathering in front of the home of Utah’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

Recent demonstrations at Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Orem home protesting his new statewide mask mandate have been “loud” and “obnoxious,” City Councilman Brent Sumner, who lives nearby, complained.

Those protests and others in the city targeting a specific person’s home are now also illegal — unless the demonstration takes place 100 feet or more away from the property line of the person’s home.

The City Council unanimously approved the new picketing ordinance in an emergency meeting on Friday as part of an effort to balance two competing interests: “the right of people to express themselves and the rights of people to feel secure and safe in their own homes,” as City Attorney Steve Earl put it to the council.

“It doesn’t take away by any means people’s right to demonstrate or protest,” Earl noted at the meeting on Friday. “They just can’t focus it right by a particular target house.”

Sure enough, the new ordinance didn’t stop a group of demonstrators from showing up Sunday at the governor’s home, carrying signs and waving American flags to protest the state’s new mask mandate and other restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Orem City Police Department told FOX 13 on Sunday that the protest was peaceful and that none of the demonstrators were expected to be cited under the picketing ordinance, which classifies violations as a class B misdemeanor.

Orem City Manager Jamie Davidson told the council on Friday that the police department would work to achieve compliance before issuing citations and saw the new code as an “additional tool” to keep the peace and protect private property owners.

“Our goal here is not to necessarily enforce but [to] educate and essentially maintain the peacefulness of the neighborhood while at the same time allowing individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said.

City leaders also made clear Friday that the ordinance would not necessarily protect the neighbors of those who are being targeted.

“It’s really designed to protect the target of a protest, to protect a person in their home to be free from that kind of intimidation, those kinds of threats,” Earl said. “It’s not really designed to protect a neighborhood from the annoyance or the inconvenience of a demonstration or protest. And courts recognize that because we have free speech rights, that sometimes means people have to put up with some inconvenience and annoyance.”

The governor’s office declined to comment Monday on the protests or the Orem ordinance.

While the U.S. Constitution recognizes the right to protest, it’s not limitless. The Supreme Court previously upheld a municipal ordinance that banned picketing in front of a particular residence in Frisby v. Shultz, a 1988 decision that stemmed from a challenge by anti-abortion protesters of a Brookfield, Wis., ordinance.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah noted that the Supreme Court has upheld “narrowly tailored” bans on picketing at specific residences.

“But more general prohibitions on protest activities in residential neighborhoods have not been successful,” the organization said in a written statement.

Earl said the city chose to implement a 100-foot distance threshold rather than a larger one as part of an effort to narrowly tailor the ordinance. And he noted that the rules do not apply to those with any specific viewpoint or position but instead to anyone “who wants to target or focus their demonstration on a single home.”

Salt Lake City has had an ordinance similar to Orem’s on the books since 2007. The requirement that all protesters there stay 100 feet or more back from a person’s home was a response to animal-rights protests held outside the homes of University of Utah researchers who used animals in their experiments.

Salt Lake County and Holladay approved similar targeted residential picketing rules shortly afterward.

Orem’s new ordinance comes as elected officials and state employees alike have seen their homes targeted in recent weeks by protesters who are frustrated over the coronavirus restrictions that have been put in place as Utah leaders grapple with how best to control one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

The governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City has been a frequent target of such demonstrations, but anti-mask protesters have recently been widening their scope.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who will take over as governor early next year, saw protests at his home on Sunday — a rare occurrence for someone who lives on a farm in Sanpete County.

In a tweet, Cox said he “never dreamed” he’d see protesters at his Fairview home.

“But we don’t get many visitors, so if you make the long drive, the least we can do is make you cookies and hot chocolate,” he wrote, along with a photo showing those refreshments. “I’m glad I got a chance to tell them I love them even if we disagree on masks.”

Late last month, a small number of anti-mask protesters also targeted state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn’s home in Salt Lake City after her address was posted online.

“It’s scary, and wrong that someone would feel comfortable sharing my personal information,” Dunn said at the time. “It’s scary that people think it’s OK to harass civil servants.”

The governor condemned the gathering, as did the Utah Medical Association, which said in a statement that harassing a public health official “will in no way change the minds of anyone who respects real science, reason and even common sense, when it comes to the proven methods of fighting a pandemic virus that has killed more than a million across the globe and nearly 600 here in Utah.”

As of Monday, 723 Utahns have died from the virus and the total case count from the start of the pandemic topped 156,700.