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Santa Cruz mayor apologizes to homeless activist

March 17, 2004

Santa Cruz mayor apologizes to homeless activist

By DAN WHITE
Sentinel staff writer

It’s never easy to say you’re sorry — especially if the person in question has called you "Mayor Squawkbox."

But Mayor Scott Kennedy has apologized for telling a UC Santa Cruz student newspaper that longtime activist Robert Norse was "successfully prosecuted" after doing a Nazi salute in the City Council chamber in March of 2002.

In fact, Norse was arrested that night and jailed briefly, but no charges were filed.

In the 2002 incident, Councilman Tim Fitzmaurice ordered Norse to leave the chamber after Norse directed a Nazi salute at then-Mayor Christopher Krohn. Krohn had told a woman who had stepped to the microphone that the time for oral communications was over.

Krohn said he was trying to move the meeting along, but Norse alleged Krohn wasted time chatting with other speakers and should have extended public comment.

At the time Norse stated that his "silent salute to the Fuhrer" was a protest against an "autocratic process."

Norse and his lawyer, Kate Wells, say they considered libel proceedings unless Kennedy retracted the recent statement made to the Fish Rap Live! newspaper.

Kennedy said his apology had nothing to do with any libel suit threat.

"When a mistake is brought to my attention, I correct it," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he forwarded the apology on city letterhead to Wells, the City Council, the city attorney, and six newspapers "because I figured (Norse) would make a big deal out of it."

While apologizing, Kennedy added that Norse’s subsequent civil rights action against the city — claiming rules of conduct, as enforced at council meetings, are unconstitutional — was dismissed. Norse has since appealed and the city awaits the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision.

Wells said it would have been sufficient if Kennedy offered a retraction in Fish Rap Live!, though she also said Kennedy was wrong to write that Norse had been "previously warned by the council for making such a gesture while others are speaking."

Norse alleges the post-salute arrest — and the fact that charges were not filed — is part of a pattern Kennedy and previous mayors use to harass and exclude him at meetings.

"My concern is that people won’t be able to participate in meetings without being smeared," said Norse, who was also arrested earlier this year after being accused of being disruptive and refusing to leave the chamber. No charges were filed.

While Norse alleges the council creates an atmosphere of harassment and intimidation that puts a chilling effect on discourse, his council critics — Kennedy, in particular — have long argued Norse and his backers cause a chilling effect, and discourage participation with their disruptions.

"Libel" is a false statement about a person that damages their reputation. If the person claiming to have been libeled is a "public figure," such as a government official, celebrity or well-known individual, actual malice must also be proven, according to the nonprofit Libel Defense Resource Center.

Norse, a widely known homeless activist in Santa Cruz, has a radio program on a pirate station and writes a newsletter.

City Attorney John Barisone said he’s not sure if Norse is a public figure though he believes Norse is "pretty close" to being one.

Contact Dan White at dwhite@santacruzsentinel.com

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