Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Friday that makes it a misdemeanor in California for protesters to physically interfere with vaccination efforts or harass and intimidate those attending clinics administering shots, including COVID-19 vaccines.
State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, wrote Senate Bill 742 in response to protesters briefly shutting down Dodger Stadium in January while it was serving as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site.
Pan, a pediatrician and the author of California’s tough vaccine laws that limit who can skip immunizations in schools, said SB 742 was a necessary bill to shield those who wanted to be inoculated against the deadly virus from anti-vaccine activists.
The new law applies to all vaccine clinics, not just those administering COVID-19 shots. Because the bill carried an “urgency clause,” it takes effect immediately.
The new law now sets limits on how close protesters can get to and engage with those at vaccination sites. A demonstrator couldn’t approach within 30 feet anyone who is within 100 feet of an entrance to a vaccine site, if the intention is to obstruct, harass, intimidate, injure or interfere. The restrictions extend to those in their cars at a drive-through clinic.
The 30-foot buffer is intended to mitigate transmission of COVID-19, though it’s harder to spread the virus outdoors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prohibited activities could include passing out leaflets, displaying signs or educating or counseling someone without consent. Protesters can’t restrict someone’s physical ability to enter a vaccine site, or make threats as an intimidation tactic. Violators could face six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.
Protected sites could include hospitals, stadiums, fairgrounds, doctor’s offices and pop-up clinics.
Anti-vaccine groups trail California lawmaker
Pan has personally faced anti-vaccine opposition in his work as a doctor and lawmaker. While he was volunteering at a July vaccine clinic in Sacramento, protesters showed up with a bullhorn to interrupt the process.
In 2019, Pan wrote a vaccine law to rein in fraudulent vaccine medical exemptions for children. During the last night of the legislative session that year, an anti-vaccine protester traveled to the Capitol and while sitting in the Senate balcony, threw a menstrual cup with blood at senators. That same year, another anti-vaccine activist shoved Pan as the lawmaker was walking to a restaurant near the Capitol.
Supporters of SB 742 said the new law will protect Californians from extremist ideology and maintain their privacy at medical clinics.
But the legislation raised questions over First Amendment rights and whether the new law could withstand legal challenges.
During a June hearing to consider the bill, prominent anti-vaccine activist Joshua Coleman said the bill was a direct hit on his group, V is for Vaccine, and its organizing tactics.
“I believe the true intention of this bill is to, just like Facebook, block the dissemination of information on vaccine risks, despite its validity,” Coleman said.
California Family Council President Jonathan Keller also raised concerns that the bill would prohibit pro-life organizers from demonstrating at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Planned Parenthood is administering COVID-19 vaccines in California, according to its website.
“Vaccination can be controversial, so every person should be free to make the best choice for them and their family,” Keller said in a statement. “But SB 742 is a Trojan Horse attack on the First Amendment rights of all Californians. Groups like Planned Parenthood will use this law to silence peaceful pro-life speech and assembly.”
The law “focuses on conduct not speech,” according to an analysis of SB 742, and the new law “does not single out one political position relating to vaccines or any medical treatment for that matter, whether one is advocating for or against any position.”
Days before lawmakers sent SB 742 to Newsom, Pan worked with Protect US, a group that promotes vaccines and other public health measures, on an ad that calls out protesters for interfering with vaccination efforts. The ad also encouraged a “yes” vote on SB 742. Protect US was the sponsor of SB 742, and a variety of organizations representing medical professionals supported the legislation.
“In California alone, millions are still unvaccinated. Our children are still vulnerable to COVID. Community outreach efforts are in high gear, making progress in the face of the delta variant,” the ad states. “But there’s a new threat: the dangerous and reckless anti-vax movement.”