Alameda County sideshow law criminalizes journalism

Plaintiff Jose Fermoso points at tire marks left from a sideshow. Photo: Florence Middleton

Tires are screeching, a crowd is cheering, and the smell of burning rubber fills the air. It’s a familiar scene for many Californians: A sideshow is underway — a stunt driving event that often occurs on busy public streets and intersections, sideshows have taken over major city intersections and even the Bay Bridge. Elected officials and law enforcement agencies throughout the state have been vowing harsh penalties for those involved.

Last year, Alameda County passed Ordinance 2023-31, which makes merely being present within 200 feet of a sideshow for purposes of observing it punishable by a fine up to $1,000, as many as three months in jail, or both.

This law is a step too far because anyone who is trying to report on this controversial public safety issue may be prosecuted for it.

Recently, FAC filed a lawsuit representing Jose Antonio Garcia — who writes using another family name, “Jose Fermoso” — an award-winning reporter who covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside, a nonprofit news organization. Our lawsuit asks the court to strike down Ordinance 2023-31 as unconstitutional because it violates free speech and free press rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and the California Constitution.

Fermoso’s past coverage of sideshows includes a map of the intersections where sideshows have been reported to Oakland police over a nearly four-year period.

He’s also interviewed residents and business owners who are affected by the sideshows and detailed efforts to curb sideshows through enforcement and traffic safety measures such as installing hard medians and barricades.

He knows the community wants — and needs — reliable, firshand reporting about what is happening at these events. He planned to attend, observe, and record sideshows in unincorporated areas of Alameda County to meet this demand. But after Ordinance 2023-31 passed, he couldn’t risk being cited, arrested, or criminally prosecuted just for doing his job.

FAC recognizes the public safety issues presented by sideshows, but the government cannot address those concerns by criminalizing journalism. Alameda County residents deserve independent reporting to hear all sides of the story, not just the side the government is willing to disclose.