Puppets, Racist Rants Test Freedom Of Speech At LA City Hall
LOS ANGELES, CA — It’ll be at least another week before the Los Angeles City Council votes on a proposed rule change designed to crack down on people who repeatedly disrupt council or committee meetings, possibly by banning them from attending some future meetings.
Council members spoke at length with its attorneys in closed session Tuesday but took no action on the proposal, which critics — including the American Civil Liberties Union — have blasted as a potential infringement on free-speech rights.
Proposed changes to council rules must be formally presented to the council then held over for one week before a vote can be taken. Changing council rules requires a two-thirds vote.
Council President Herb Wesson and some other council members recently introduced the motion that would amend council rules governing ejections from meetings.
A handful of people are routinely ejected from council or committee meetings for violating rules, including yelling out or being disruptive when it is not their turn to speak. It is not uncommon for them to be ejected from multiple meetings in one day.
The council’s current rules allow for someone to be kicked out for being disruptive, but only from that specific meeting. The motion introduced by Wesson, Councilman Gil Cedillo and Councilwoman Nury Martinez, and seconded by three others, would bar anyone ejected from a City Council or council committee meeting from attending any more meetings the rest of the day.
If the person is removed from another meeting within three business days, he or she would be barred from attending any more meetings for three business days. If they disrupt another meeting within the next three business days after they are allowed to return, they would be barred from meetings on the next six business days.
The motion is the latest development in an ongoing conflict the council has had with public speakers who push the boundaries of decorum with racist, sexist or vulgar comments. Offenders often get kicked out of meetings for failing to stop speaking after their allotted time or by causing a disruption in the audience when it is not their turn to speak. The conflicts can lead to bizarre interactions, when a council member in the middle of a serious conversation about city issues must pause to admonish a member of the audience to stop playing with a puppet, making animal noises or waving their hands in the air.
In previous discussions during City Council sessions, members have worried about how to handle disruptions while adhering to open meeting laws, including the Brown Act. The council lost a 2013 federal free speech lawsuit filed by two men who were repeatedly kicked out of council meetings for violating public comment rules.
The council appears to expect that the proposed rules will be challenged in court, scheduling Tuesday’s closed-session discussion to confer with its legal council “based on a significant exposure to litigation.”
In a memorandum to the City Council, Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso states the rules are being amended in “the most narrowly tailored manner that will still deter individuals from chronically disrupting council and committee meetings.” She notes in the document that the “few individuals” who repeatedly disrupt meetings “by impeding the orderly conduct of the meeting, can deter other members of the public from attending meetings and/or taking the opportunity provided under the Brown Act to provide comment.”
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, whose members are frequent critics of city policies, argue the new rules could be used to squash free speech.
“This is a direct assault on our organizing and people power that challenge, disrupt and organize to abolish the police state, and policies that criminalize homelessness, poverty, youth, and many other aspects of our communities’ daily lives,” according to the group.