In the Bay Area, there is a problem called "sideshows", where youths do dangerous stunts with cars (like donuts) on public streets, usually at an intersection (example video). California, wanting to crackdown on this, has put out increasingly harsh laws. But some of these laws seem to have gone over the line to me. For example, I heard on ABC news that it is now illegal to spectate or record a sideshow. It is punishable by up to 6 months in prison or a $1000 fine.

But doesn't this violate the Constitution, or some personal freedom? If a random passerby happens to see cars doing donuts, and stops to rubberneck (just watch), or even record, can that really be made illegal? I'm no expert in law or the constitution, but it just seems like an overreach to me... Perhaps it violates the First Amendment, which includes the right to gather and disseminate information about matters of public interest, if I recall correctly.

Edit: link to an article about the law being passed on April 30, 2019

2 Answers 2


The San Jose version of the ordinance is presumably this. The term "spectator" is defined as:

any person who is present at a Street Race or Reckless Driving Exhibition, or the site of the Preparations for either of these activities, for the purpose of viewing, observing, watching, or witnessing the event as it progresses. A "Spectator" includes any person at the location of the event without regard to the means by which the person arrived

which rules out a person why "just happens to be there", and it does include a person who was driving by and decided to watch.

It is specifically limited to "a Street Race conducted on a public street or highway" or "a Reckless Driving Exhibition conducted on a public street or highway or in an Offstreet Parking Facility". These terms are also defined – it does for example not include watching a street mime. The events being watch are violations of the state vehicle code (speeding, reckless driving). All of this would pass muster if constitutionally challenged – it is a narrowly-tailored restriction on the right to assembly that is necessary for a compelling government interest.

§10.50.025 also makes it

unlawful for any person to knowingly encourage, promote, instigate, assist, facilitate, aid, or abet

said activities. The internet claims that this means you can't Tweet about one of these events, and this may be the ordinance you have in mind. This ordinance could easily be found to be unconstitutionally vague, because it may well be interpreted to mean "comment on it on Twitter", which is a protected expression.


No right is absolute, and all are held in balance with each other as well as the interests of the government (public order, public health and safety, etc.).

To make it short: rights to assembly and speech can usually be abridged in the interests of resolving an immediate public safety issue or other illegal act. Which the events you describe certainly are on both counts—they endanger participants, spectators, bystanders, and public and private property alike, as well as creating a public nuisance (such as via noise ordinances) etc.—and spectating and recording them only contributes to and encourages the issue.

The exact legal standards for when a right can be abridged depends on the right. For free speech issues it's usually "narrowly tailored to suit a compelling government interest" (but note "narrowly tailored" is more permissive than you might think), and there are time, place, and manner restrictions the government can avail itself of. The behavior you indicate seems to fall well within these exceptions, and it's arguable in what sense there's meaningful "speech" going on here in the first place. For right to assembly, in addition to time, place, and manner exceptions there's another, usually less restrictive (on the government), set of standards, which includes threats to public health and safety. And street races and stunts are clear examples thereof, as the drivers can easily lose control or the cars otherwise veer into spectators and/or property (plus the damage they are likely inflicting to the public roadways themselves, above and beyond normal permitted use). Furthermore, cities in California (and presumably elsewhere) have been dealing with this issue for years, and simply focusing on just the stunt performers and drivers has proven inadequate to address a compelling public safety issue.

I had some initial difficulties finding explicit references to fines of spectators other than your own brief article. But here's a whole case synopsis from LA, specifically as an infraction of LA MC 47.15. Notably, at no point is there any mention of trying to contest the validity of the law; only if the particular requirements (intent to spectate and proximity) were met and the difficulty in the ticketing officer to remember those things without it being easy for the defense to undercut this. They negotiated a plea deal, ultimately, to avoid jail time. Now not everyone is willing and able to contest things all the way up the appellate chain; even those that contest and appeal sometimes stop before reaching SCOTUS, for any number of reasons. But this seems suggestive nevertheless: a law office is putting forth a "we negotiated this down" rather than a "we contested it's validity wholesale" as an example of the kind of service and results you can get through them on this sort of issue.

Combined, I would conclude that there is little reason to think a court would find the law unconstitutional.

  • 1
    I really don't think you can call this a time/place/manner restriction. The restriction is based on the content of what is being spectated; it doesn't neutrally make it illegal to observe anything within 150 feet of a road.
    – D M
    Jul 2, 2023 at 19:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .