LOS ANGELES – Representatives for companies owned by mayoral candidate Rick Caruso have responded to a lawsuit by free-speech activists who allege viewpoint discrimination for not being allowed to protest at the Grove, saying the plaintiffs’ applications raised safety concerns.
Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer running for mayor of Los Angeles, has his campaign headquartered at the shopping center, which has also been the site of numerous public events promoting his candidacy, according to the Los Angeles Superior Court suit brought Aug. 16 against Caruso Management Co. Ltd. and GFM LLC, alleging violations of the state Constitution.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs — former mayoral candidate Gina Viola as well as Sim Bilal of the organization Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles — were denied permission by Grove management to hold small-scale marches through the center’s public access ways in August, according to the suit, which seeks injunctive relief permitting criticisms of Caruso’s campaign positions on the Fairfax District property. A hearing is scheduled Sept. 22 before Judge Teresa A. Beaudet.
While Grove employees continue to distribute signs promoting Caruso’s campaign to mall visitors and allow them to march around the mall holding up the signs, any demonstrations critical of the businessman’s campaign platform are banned, according to the suit. The plaintiffs’ assertions are disputed in declarations filed Friday by two company representatives, who say the plaintiffs’ planned events did not comply with the Grove policies when their applications were submitted July 31.
“Based on my knowledge and experience with crowd control principles and knowledge of the Grove, the activities proposed in the two applications would give rise to risks that are simply untenable for a commercial operation like the Grove without the deployment of substantial additional security and crowd control resources,” says Banyon Hutter, Caruso Management Company Ltd.’s senior vice president for security, health and technology.
Hutter maintains that without such stationing of resources, the plaintiffs’ planned protests “would almost certainly impede, obstruct and interfere with the Grove’s tenants and patrons; they would almost certainly substantially interfere with the free flow of pedestrian traffic, resulting in choke points and congestion; and they would almost certainly impede or block free access to ingress and egress points and high-flow areas of the Grove. “
Viola’s planned event called for as many as 15 people and Bilal’s up to 50, according to Hutter.
“Finally, the activities could lead to an uncontrolled situation, where, as in the past, violent individuals take advantage of a chaotic situation to cause damage to property and the well-being and security of the Grove’s patrons, tenants, and others,” according to Hutter.
In the second declaration, Sunil Watumull, Caruso Management Co.’s executive vice president for operations, says there is no viewpoint discrimination when applications for expressive events at the Grove are considered.
“I am not familiar with an instance in which supporters of Mr. Caruso’s campaign wishing to use the Grove for non-commercial expressive activity have been treated differently from any other group or person wishing to use the Grove for non-commercial expressive activity,” Watumull says.
Caruso Management Co. has never sanctioned the use of the Grove’s common areas for non-commercial expressive activity at the request of the mayoral campaign or its supporters, according to Watumull.
“If the company were to receive such a request from the campaign, it would be treated like all other requests to use the Grove for non-commercial expressive activity,” Watumull says.
The activities proposed in the plaintiffs’ applications “would disrupt commercial operations and present additional risks to the safety and well-being of the Grove’s tenants and guests,” Watumull says.
Viola is an organizer with the LAPC Fails Coalition, a group critical of the Los Angeles Police Commission’s response to police violence in Los Angeles. Caruso is a former commission president.
She ran against Caruso in the June 7 mayoral primary, wining nearly 7% of the vote.
Bilal is an organizer with Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles, a group that focuses on climate change and the environment.