An Atherton resident who said he was targeted by paid protesters in November and December is asking the City Council to do more than limit picketing within 300 feet of a home and a $1,000 fine for violating the ordinance.
The Carolina Lane resident spoke to the council during a Wednesday, Jan. 18, meeting, asking the town to charge violators with a misdemeanor. Police Chief Steve McCulley said the protesters last year were paid $200 a day for eight hours of protesting outside of the home. The resident said he runs an investment firm and was targeted by the "unhinged" protesters because of a court case involving a relative.
"Until very recently we lived in Atherton peacefully and happily for six and half years," said the resident, who didn't disclose his name. "Someone we don't know sent more than 20 people to threaten and demean us. They came every single day including weekends and holidays. ... It was witness intimidation, mafia style."
The resident lives in town with his wife, who is a student at Stanford University, and their 1-year-old and 4-year-old children. They were forced to leave the home during the protests, which took place during the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December, he said.
During the Jan. 18 meeting, the town considered whether to prohibit picketers from coming within 300 feet of the property line in front of a house, violators of which would be subject to fines.
The protesters did, at times, block driveways and yelled obscenities, McCulley said. Two of the resident's neighbors vouched for the disruptiveness of the protests during the meeting.
McCulley said that there's a "fine line in balancing free speech and a right to be safe in their own homes." He noted that Atherton is unique in that it has narrow streets and no sidewalks.
Police were called out a few times to the protests and they had good communication with the organizer, but the organizer wasn't always truthful, McCulley said.
"These were not typical protesters," he said. The resident noted that the organizer of the protests has targeted others across the country and many of these other cases have ended in violence. The organizer has also made videos threatening his son, the resident said.
Town Attorney Mona Ebrahimi said the town could consider adding a misdemeanor charge to the ordinance but dissuaded council members from requiring permits for protests in town.
"I don't recommend that at all," she said. "It's considered a prior restraint on free speech. ... I don't recommend a blanket rule."
The resident noted that in Los Angeles violators can receive a misdemeanor charge for such violations.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis said she'd also like to see an ordinance with "more teeth."
Town staff will amend the ordinance before it comes back to the City Council on Wednesday, Feb. 15.