Lawsuit Demands City of Palo Alto Cease Its Discriminatory Policy of Blocking Non-Residents from Use of Public Park

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SAN FRANCISCO – The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and co-counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP filed a lawsuit today to compel the city of Palo Alto to remove an unconstitutional residents-only restriction at Foothills Park—a legacy of the city’s history of racial discrimination.

The suit was brought on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of San Jose/Silicon Valley (NAACP) and 10 individual plaintiffs who are residents of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and neighboring communities throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.

“As a Black woman who grew up in the segregated South, I find this ordinance particularly offensive,” said plaintiff Gwen Gasque, who owns a business located in downtown Palo Alto but lives in nearby Menlo Park, California. “Even though I own a business in Palo Alto and have for many years paid taxes that fund the park, I cannot enter it.”

Foothills Park is a 1,400-acre public park that the city has kept exclusive to Palo Alto residents under an ordinance that threatens non-residents who enter the park with jail time and a hefty fine unless they enter as guests of a Palo Alto resident. Plaintiffs allege in the complaint that this ordinance is a vestige of a well-documented history of racial discrimination. Well into the middle of the 20th century, government agencies, lending institutions, realtors’ associations, and private individuals combined to prevent Black Americans from residing or purchasing homes in Palo Alto—as well as in many other communities across the country. As a consequence of this discrimination, just 1.6 percent of residents in Palo Alto today are Black, a far lower proportion than in neighboring communities.

“Palo Alto cannot threaten to arrest and fine people who want to enjoy a public space,” said William S. Freeman, Senior Counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Palo Alto’s exclusion of its neighbors violates the civil rights of communities who too often still find those rights under threat: Black and Brown communities.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, asserts that the Palo Alto ordinance violates both the U.S. and California Constitutions because it infringes on the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The suit also seeks to prohibit the city’s wasteful and unlawful expenditure of public funds to enforce the ordinance. By the city’s own admission, Foothills Park is the only residents-only park in California.

“I cannot in good conscience sit by while the city of Palo Alto uses my tax dollars to perpetuate  the exclusion of people from public spaces in my community,” said plaintiff LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge and former member of the Palo Alto City Council. “The practice of blocking non-residents from Foothills Park perpetuates inequity, and it must end.”

Rev. Jethroe Moore II, President of the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley issued the following statement: “In our communities, we need more inclusive spaces. We need public green spaces that truly reflect the meaning of the word ‘public’—‘for the people.' This is even more important during this time of global pandemic, when outdoor public areas are some of the few places where we can safely and responsibly enjoy time away from our homes. This experience should not be exclusive to those who hold the most racial and socioeconomic privilege.”

Plaintiff Alysa Cisneros, a resident of Sunnyvale, California issued the following statement: “This past Fourth of July, I took my daughter to Foothills Park to protest the exclusion of non-residents. The park ranger turned us away from the entrance because we do not live in Palo Alto. On this most American of holidays, we were reminded of the inequities that still exist in our own backyards. I want to show my daughter that it is important to face the things that are wrong in our communities, and to work to do something about them.”

Plaintiff Laura Martinez, former Mayor of East Palo Alto, issued the following statement: “I attended schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District for many years, I currently work and serve as a volunteer in nonprofit organizations in Palo Alto, and have spent much of my career in public service. Yet I am barred from entering the public grounds of Foothills Park. It is time for Palo Alto to end its exclusionary policy and welcome all members of the surrounding community to Foothills Park.” 

Read the complaint here.

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