SANTA CRUZ -- Unless the city reaches a settlement with Robert Norse, a federal trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 29 on the longtime critic's claim that being ejected from a council meeting after making a mock Nazi salute violated his First Amendment rights.
Norse, 65, has offered to settle the 10-year-old case if the city loosens its rules governing public commentary during meetings.
"We want the council rules changed so that there is a clear understanding for members of the public: if they are not substantially and materially disrupting the meeting," they can't be thrown out, he said. Opinions "the City Council simply doesn't like can't be the basis for exclusion," he said.
Norse also said he would not seek $50,000 in damages if the city repeals its overnight camping ban, which he says "criminalizes homelessness."
City Attorney John Barisone said, "I have an ethical obligation to bring any demands to the council. But I would be surprised if the council would be interested in that."
Barisone said his office has discussed making minor modifications in the rules on public meeting decorum but not a deal on financial damages. Council members will discuss the case in closed session Tuesday.
The city has spent about $150,000 fighting the case, and Barisone estimates a weeklong trial could cost up to $20,000 -- money not be covered by his firm's annual $975,000 budget. Norse estimated his own legal bills, if he wins, could cost
the city another $300,000 to $500,000.
Norse was booted from a 2002 council meeting after raising his arm in protest of then-Mayor Christopher Krohn's decision to cut off a speaker. Krohn ordered a police officer to arrest Norse for refusing to leave, but charges were later dropped.
In December 2010, an 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal overturned an earlier ruling upholding a trial court's decision not to hear evidence in the case. A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined the city's request for an appeal, clearing the way for a trial.
The trial judge, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte, issued an order Friday striking down part of the city's noise ordinance, which a street preacher had challenged. Police used the same rule in 2010 to cite Norse and others singing in front of a downtown book store after a neighbor complained about the noise.
Whyte said the rule blocking "unreasonably disturbing noise" and "unnecessary" noise levels for performing otherwise "lawful activities" is too vague.
Norse also faces felony charges in Santa Cruz County related to the 2011 occupation of a former bank building. He also was ejected from a council meeting in 2004, which the city argues shows a pattern of disruption.
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