Free speech is latest battleground at Children's Pool

Ken and Marie staff the Friends of the Children's Pool table on Jan. 29.  Photo: Brittany Comunale
Ken and Marie staff the Friends of the Children's Pool table on Jan. 29. Photo: Brittany Comunale

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

The two sides in the ongoing debate over La Jolla's seals now are squabbling over implementation of new city regulations requiring those with "free speech” tables at the Children’s Pool to get permits.

“Police are currently threatening to arrest a La Jolla seal advocate and confiscate her educational table at the Children's Pool due to an unenforceable/unconstitutional new regulation put in place by Park & Rec without (City) Council oversight to limit free speech,” attorney Bryan Pease wrote in an e-mail.

The city says it’s not taking sides by requiring permits for the tables, which present literature and souvenirs about the seals and Children's Pool.

While the groups have two basic positions — that the seals should be fully protected by closing the beach or that full beach access should be allowed for people — the city decided that permits would be needed and held a lottery to determine who would get the two spots on the walkway on Coast Boulevard overlooking the beach. The choice was made by lottery, with those dubbed "pro-beach access" getting both spots.

Still, a group called “Seal Watch” continues to staff tables despite not receiving a permit.

Dorota Valli has been staffing the table for the Animal Protection and Rescue League, since 2004. She claims her group’s nonprofit status makes all the difference when it comes to the need for permitting.

“Permitting is usually done to vendors,” she said. “We are a charitable, nonprofit organization. There’s nothing in the municipal code talking about nonprofits. We don’t need a permit. We have a mission to protect the seals. Vendors, they just sell stuff. It’s a private-pocket situation.”

David Pierce, director of the San Diego Council of Divers, which operates one of two permitted tables, said last week, “Our group is following the laws and regulations the city has handed down to us. Some organizations (seal groups) feel they’re above the law.”

Pease, an animal rights advocate who has been fighting in the courts for years to protect seals at the pool, is working with those who oppose the permitting process. He’s also leading the battle to have the rope barrier that now goes up on Dec. 15 and comes down on May 15 during the seals’ pupping season extended year-round.

Randy Hawley, whose interim post as the ranger at Children’s Pool ended Jan. 31, said, “The process is the same as is instituted at other locations within the city,” said outgoing senior ranger. The hope is to get some control on the number and placement of tables and the limitations of signage.”

The permits took effect Dec. 1 and new signs giving a clearer message of the city's policy at the pool have also been installed. They state the beach is open for public use and provide information on ways to view the seals without disturbing them.

Kent Heinrich represents Friends of Children’s Pool, the other pro-beach access group that received a permit. He told La Jolla Town Council’s Parks and Beaches Committee at their January meeting police are currently warning pro-seal advocates about operating a table without a permit, but aren’t citing them.

“We wanted the city to regulate that sidewalk, get it under control,” Heinrich said. “We pay $50 a month to get a permitted display. They (seal groups) are encroaching upon reserved, permitted space.”

Heinrich is claiming the city’s failure to enforce its regulations will have unwanted consequences down the road.

“If word gets out about unpermitted vendors down on that sidewalk, it will open the flood gates and you’ll have hot dog stands there,” he argued. “We really don’t want to have that in our public park.”



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