Reporter sues Alameda County over sideshow ordinance

A Bay Area reporter is suing Alameda County over its rules for sideshows. 

Jose Fermoso, who reports for The Oaklandside, filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday alleging the county's sideshow ordinance is a violation of his First Amendment right.

Last year, the county made it illegal for anyone to be within 200 feet of a sideshow. Being a sideshow spectator carries a fine of up to $1,000 or up to three months in jail.

Fermoso says he has a right as a journalist to record and report on sideshows from a public safety standpoint.

The First Amendment Coalition is representing Fermoso, who wrote on social media: "We believe the current sideshow law criminalizes journalism."

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, according to his attorneys. 

He planned to attend, observe, and record sideshows to meet this demand. However, following the passage of the ordinance, 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. 

The county has not yet responded. 

But when supervisors passed the ordinance in August 2023, they said they were doing what they can to crack down on the problem of dangerous and illegal sideshows in the East Bay.

"When you have hundreds of vehicles, hundreds of participants, all sorts of unlawful behavior, it’s just not wholesome for our society," Alameda County Board President Nate Miley said at the time. "The idea is, if you take away with audience for the sideshow, that might discourage sideshow activity."