Free speech crackdown

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREFrumpy Middle-aged Mom: My realistic 2020 New Year’s resolutions. Some involve doughnuts.Under the rules, a speaker also gets one warning before he or she is kicked out of the meeting for an infraction. “Although it doesn’t go as far as some of us would like, it goes as far legally as we can move forward,” said Councilman Bernard Parks, who introduced the motion calling for the rule changes. The move is the latest attempt by the council to impose order on public comments. The panel has been increasingly frustrated with activists and gadflies who speak at the thrice-weekly meetings, sometimes rapping, sometimes shouting and often chastising individual council members. The council has reduced individual public comment times from two minutes to one on busy days, which has drawn fire from community activists, and limited repeat speakers to a total of six minutes of comment during meetings. But the last straw came in May, when speaker Michael Hunt, who is black, began using a racial slur during his regular public comments protesting new vending rules at Venice Beach that prohibit him from selling shea butter. Initially, Parks and fellow council members sought to block “racist and abusive” language during hearings or broadcasts of meetings on Channel 35. But the City Attorney’s Office warned that racial epithets are protected speech and couldn’t be banned. Instead, the office recommended limits modeled on regulations already in place in Berkeley, Burbank, Glendale and other cities. Under the new rules, the council can cut off speakers who disrupt the meeting with comments that are personal, impertinent, unduly repetitive, slanderous or profane. Speakers also are prohibited from singling out council members, asking questions, displaying placards or banners, or acting boisterous or disorderly. “If there’s conduct or language that disrupts the meeting, the speaker will be given a warning that he’s disruptive. If he continues he could be ordered to discontinue,” Deputy City Attorney Dion O’Connell said. “It’s up to the council president to use his discretion.” And that’s the problem, said Roger Myers, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. “Who gets to decide what’s impertinent? Who gets to decide what’s unduly repetitive? That list (of prohibitions) has got a whole host of potential First Amendment problems because a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder. It gives the government too much discretion to decide when to enforce the rules and when not to.” But council President Eric Garcetti said the council has a good track record of allowing free speech and has some of the most lenient public-comment rules among local government agencies. “I would challenge people to find a place where there’s a broader, more expansive, more robust place for public comment in a government body,” said Garcetti, who became president in January. At the time, he vowed to improve meetings by paying more attention to the public and returning to a three-minute limit for council members’ speeches. And he said he hoped to make council meetings more friendly to the public, while running them more efficiently. The new rules are part of that effort, he said. “This gives discretion to make sure certain speech doesn’t drown out other speech and it doesn’t become disruptive to the people’s business that we have to conduct,” he said. Still, the ACLU’s Helzer warned the council that while the rules regulating behavior might be legal, the council needs to be careful not to regulate what people say. A few minutes after the warning, Venice Beach vendor Hunt stood at the podium and calmly, quietly uttered a racial epithet. Councilwoman Jan Perry, who was leading the meeting at the time, cut him off, called the next speaker and asked the city attorney to warn Hunt and others against such language. Helzer spoke again to the council, warning that it was unconstitutional to limit public speech. “It was clear that he was being silenced because he said the `N-word,’ not because of his behavior,” Helzer said. “Even if the rule may be OK, the way it’s being applied is not OK.” Helzer is already representing a man who said he was illegally silenced and arrested by the city of Costa Mesa after complaining during a council meeting there about the city’s immigration enforcement plan. She said she would consult with other attorneys to see whether Los Angeles’ rules should be challenged. Activists said they rely on the council’s public-comment period to voice their concerns about local government. Danny Santana, 16, started coming to council meetings last year as part of a contingent hoping to pressure the city into buying the 14-acre South Central Farm. He said he believes free public comments are needed to prod, raise guilt and cajole council members. “That’s what we’re here for,” he told the council, “to criticize you so you can become better leaders.” [email protected] (213) 978-0390160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Ratcheting up restraints on public comment, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved new rules of “decorum” designed to squelch offensive and disruptive behavior at council meetings, ranging from foul language and racial slurs to singing, whistling, foot-stamping and other boisterous conduct. The move drew immediate criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech experts who said the rules could suppress freedom of speech and infringe on folks’ constitutional rights to speak their minds even if they use shocking or offensive words. “I’m definitely concerned,” ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer said. “This is something that is potentially subject to a lot of abuse.” But council members and the city attorney defended the rules, saying the city is on firm legal ground because they target disruptive behavior rather than speech. last_img

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