Jan. 15, 2018
Edward Sifuentes

SAN DIEGO — On Sunday, one day before the national holiday honoring the legacy of a man who believed fervently in equal justice, tolerance, and ‘an inescapable network of mutuality’ connecting all humanity, the City of El Cajon chose to enforce its new ban on “food sharing,” arresting nine people for giving food to homeless people in a public park.

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties (ACLU SDIC) condemns the City’s action as both unconstitutional and unnecessarily cruel.

“Dr. Martin Luther King was deeply concerned about ending poverty and hunger in America,” said Norma Chavez Peterson, executive director of the ACLU SDIC. “He said ‘all life is inter-related’ and challenged us to act accordingly. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Dr. King would stand with people who would share food with the hungry; and he would stand against those who would call this a crime.”

On Dec. 6, 2017, the ACLU issued a letter to the City of El Cajon asking El Cajon to reconsider its “food sharing” ban as potentially unconstitutional.

“By prohibiting food sharing only when done for ‘charitable purposes,’ El Cajon is regulating food sharing because of its expressive content, punishing only those who share food to express their religious or political beliefs in ministry or charity but not those who share food for other purposes,” said David Loy, ACLU SDIC’s legal director. “If charitable appeals for funds are within the protection of the First Amendment, the same is true for charitable giving, whether of money or food.”

The City of El Cajon adopted the ordinance after a hepatitis A outbreak led the San Diego County to declare a local health emergency on September 1, 2017. However, banning food-sharing for charitable purposes will not mitigate the public health crisis. What the controversial ordinance does is infringe on the constitutional rights of benevolent El Cajon residents and visitors, and deny food to people who may otherwise go hungry.

Loy added: “Assuming the City’s interests are unrelated to the suppression of free expression, the ordinance is still problematic even if treated as content neutral, because it’s not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest. The City has other alternative tools to achieve the same goals through the adoption or enforcement of other laws at its disposal that would protect public health without prohibiting charitable food sharing on municipal land.”

In keeping with the principles of the U.S. Constitution that the ACLU defends every day, and the enduring human values we celebrate on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we once again urge the City of El Cajon to rescind its ban on sharing food with people experiencing hunger and homelessness. Further, we urge the City to drop charges against the nine arrested for their expressions of charity.