Reporter Sues Alameda County for Sideshow Law That Criminalizes Journalism


SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Today, Oaklandside reporter Jose Antonio Garcia sued Alameda County in federal court over its Ordinance 2023-31, which criminalizes merely being present within 200 feet of a “sideshow” for the purpose of observing it. This law has prevented Garcia, who writes using another family name, “Jose Fermoso,” from covering sideshows as a newsworthy public safety issue, and is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The county characterizes a sideshow as a “street race, or reckless driving exhibition” that often occurs on public streets and intersections. In Alameda County, violations of Ordinance 2023-31 are punishable by a fine up to $1,000, as many as three months in jail, or both. This applies to anyone within 200 feet of the sideshow, whether they’re watching for entertainment, observing while walking home from work, or recording or reporting on the event as a journalist.

Lawmakers passed this ordinance based on the questionable assumption that criminalizing observation would discourage sideshows from happening, even though existing laws already criminalize sideshows themselves. Yet, in other Bay Area neighborhoods, law enforcement officers seek out firsthand recordings from observers to help effectively investigate and prosecute sideshow crimes. 

The First Amendment Coalition represents Fermoso, an award-winning reporter who covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside, a nonprofit news organization. Fermoso’s past coverage of this issue includes a May 2023 article in which Fermoso and co-author Darwin BondGraham mapped the intersections of every report of sideshows made to Oakland police for nearly four years. Fermoso has 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. 

Based on the responses to his prior sideshow reporting, Fermoso knew there was high demand in the community for more reliable, firshand reporting about what is happening at these events. He planned to attend, observe, and record sideshows to meet this demand. However, following the passage of Ordinance 2023-31, Fermoso canceled all plans to report in person on sideshows in unincorporated areas of Alameda County for fear of being cited, arrested, or criminally prosecuted under the new law. 

“Sideshows occur everywhere in our community and their effect on the safety of our communities needs to be covered. Our readers at The Oaklandside rely on my reporting to know what the city and county are doing to address the issue,” said Fermoso. “By preventing myself and other reporters from covering sideshows, the county is leaving residents with one side of the story.”

Today’s lawsuit asks the court to declare Ordinance 2023-31 unconstitutional because it violates freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment and the California Constitution. The lawsuit challenges only this ordinance. It does not seek to prevent local governments from addressing the hazards of sideshows through enforcing otherwise valid laws against unlawful and dangerous conduct such as reckless driving.

“While we understand the public safety issues presented by sideshows, the government cannot address those concerns by criminalizing journalism,” says FAC Legal Fellow Annie Cappetta. “Alameda County residents rely on newsgathering to make informed decisions, and that is impossible when the law prevents reporters from doing their jobs.”

Garcia v. County of Alameda was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division.