A federal lawsuit filed this week charges that a newly enacted Salt Lake City ordinance restricting neighborhood protests is unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly of protesters.

The Anti-Hunger Action Committee and Salt Lake activist Barbara Toomer, aided by civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

The ordinance, which went into effect July 18, was originally aimed at animal-rights groups, particularly members of the Utah Primate Freedom Project, who show up to protest near the homes of some University of Utah researchers.

The lawsuit makes no mention of those homes, and instead focuses on the Governor's Mansion — where protests are not uncommon — and the general principles involved in restrictions on free speech and assembly.

The class B misdemeanor ordinance forbids any protests within 100 feet of a "targeted residence," and violating it carries a potential penalty of six months in jail and fines. That, according to the lawsuit, essentially means there is a "no speech zone" around every Salt Lake residence.

"Absent extraordinary circumstances, the creation and use of 'no speech zones' in public forum, such as a public street, violates the free-expression provisions of the United States and Utah Constitutions," the lawsuit said. It also alleges that the ordinance violates free-assembly rights under both constitutions.

Toomer, a well-know community activist, has taken part in many peaceful protests, and both she and the anti-hunger group in the past have assembled outside the Governor's Mansion to voice their concerns about social issues.

If they are prevented from doing so by law, they will suffer "immediate and irreparable" harm, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit is not seeking any monetary damages, but is asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order stopping the ordinance's enforcement and ultimately wants a court ruling on the constitutionality of the ordinance.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a former civil-rights attorney who has taken part in an anti-capital punishment demonstration at the Governor's Mansion in 1992, previously has said he did not realize the new ordinance would include the mansion. Anderson also has said the ordinance may "need some tweaking over time."

Anderson's spokesman Patrick Thronson did not return telephone calls Wednesday and Thursday seeking comment.


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com