Robert Norse tells federal jury city suppressed critics

J.M. Brown

Santa Cruz Sentinel:   10/31/2012SAN JOSE — Ten years after filing a First Amendment lawsuit against Santa Cruz officials, Robert Norse finally got his day in court Wednesday, testifying that a mock Nazi salute he made during a public meeting did not cause the disruption that led to his arrest.

The longtime Santa Cruz City Council critic and advocate for the homeless told a federal jury he made the gesture during a March 2002 meeting after then-Mayor Christopher Krohn silenced a speaker and closed a public comment period early. Norse refused Krohn’s order to leave and was taken to jail for more than five hours, later released with no charges filed.

The 65-year-old Norse, who has long sought to overturn a city ban on camping in public overnight, said the council had a history of suppressing critics. By leaving the meeting, Norse said he would have made his supporters lose hope.

“If you begin to surrender your rights in those circumstances, where does it stop?” he asked.

George Kovacevich, the city’s lawyer, tried to paint Norse on cross examination as a chronic agitator, noting he had spoken 271 times at council meetings between 1999 and 2005. Norse acknowledged he often walked around during meetings, talking to other people, and once took a pie to the face during a skit designed to criticize council members.

“This is not really a case about a Nazi salute or a case about protesting,” Kovacevich told the jury of four women and four men. “It’s about who controls the meeting. This is a case that will show Mr. Norse can’t stand that he doesn’t have control.”

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte, who first dismissed the matter a decade ago, was ordered to hold a trial by a rare 11-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, which overturned an earlier ruling backing Whyte’s original decision. The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, but the high court declined a review.

The case is consolidated with a 2004 arrest after Norse participated in a parade around the Council Chamber. After re-entering the room and whispering to someone, then-Mayor Scott Kennedy ordered him to leave after he challenged a request to take the conversation outside.

The city has spent an estimated $150,000 fighting Norse and, if it loses, faces the likelihood of paying him unspecified financial damages and covering his attorney’s fees. Norse had offered to settle if the city reforms rules governing meeting decorum and the camping ban, which bars sleeping outside, in a vehicle, or under a structure from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Norse’s testimony revealed that his long-running battle with the city over homelessness created the tense backdrop for his appearances at meetings. Even though the 2002 council was one of the most progressive, Norse was unhappy with progress on reversing measures he views as criminalizing homelessness and panhandling.

During the 2002 meeting, after Krohn asked frequent grandstander Mike Tomassi to leave, a woman approached the podium to speak but was told to sit down. After she relented, Norse told the jury, he raised his arm to say, “You’re acting in a very authoritarian manner. You’re acting like fascists.”

Norse said he is Jewish and does not subscribe to Nazi ideals. He acknowledged he made the gesture with his left arm, not his right, as is Nazi custom.

Then-Councilman Tim Fitzmaurice, who Norse said had failed on a promise to reform the camping ban, noticed the salute, brought it to Krohn’s attention and asked that Norse be removed. Norse’s lawyers argue it was Fitzmaurice who caused the disruption by stopping the meeting.

After Krohn ordered Norse to leave, Norse sat down in defiance and was later arrested by a police officer. A court eventually dismissed he officer from the suit.

Video of the 2002 and 2004 incidents were played for jurors Wednesday. In an effort to establish damages, Norse said the arrest made him scared to attend meetings and caused him to lose sleep and work time.

Steve Hartman, a former conservative radio host, and former Community TV cameraman Mark Halfmoon testified they were at the 2002 meeting and did not believe the salute made a disruption.

Hartman, who now resides in Montana, flew in to testify for just a few moments, saying he was opposed to Norse’s politics but believed his actions were within his First Amendment rights. The city’s lawyer did not cross examine either witness.

Fitzmaurice and Krohn are slated to be questioned by Norse’s attorneys Thursday.