Reporter’s notebook on Richmond free speech issues

At the July 15 Richmond City Council meeting, there was several hours of debate about how to reduce disruptions and virulent attacks from the public during meetings.

Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who proposed the item asking the city attorney to craft new laws that might tamp down disruptions while protecting free speech, said, “I am a defender of free speech and the right to express obnocxious points of view … but when it leads to action it’s not protected.”


She made several other statements:

“Admittedly the lines are little fuzzy.”

“This is for staff to create legal options.”

“Also, disruptions lead to denial of rights to other citizens.”

“Regular insults and homophobic remarks, enabled by some councilmembers, discourage other residents from participating.”

“This chamber is so toxic and hostile you can feel it through the television set.”

“That’s a violation of their free speech. This is not about me.”

“I ask city attorney to work with chief of police for possible options.”

“Handling disruptions in chambers, the chronic and weekly disruptions that’s occurring.”

Councilman Corky Booze asked City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller:  “Is this putting the city in harms way?”

Goodmiller: The courts decide. The federal courts almost always. Most of the teaching we get comes from 9th circuit. My view and is in a 7 page memo that sets out the Richmond ca views on this topic. It’s on the website.”

Booze: you said not an item we should deal with.

Goodmiller: no sir. It’s a memo legal regarding the topic suspension from the city council chamber for disrupting public meetings.

Booze: what could a resident say to get them suspended for 6 months?

Goodmiller: our memo specifically addresses that point, future attendance, and concludes it is not legally permissible (to suspend). We advise against that.

Booze: open forum. What are the guidelines to adhere to?

Goodmiller: open forum is a limited public forum. Can’t talk as long as they want. People need to speak about items within the city’s jurisdiction.

Booze: if they hurt my feelings, that is just tough stuff.

They can say what they want about us whether we like it or not right?

Goodmiller: yes.

Booze: f word to me is inappropriate, yes?

Goodmiller: that is not for me to say. The rules are silent on that particular point.

Booze: I rest my case.

Councilman Jael Myrick: so a vote in favor of this tonight just directs staff to investigate it more?

Beckles: correct.

Goodmiller: irrelevant attacks are out of order but the government has to be really careful about prohibiting those. The citizens have an absolute right to get up and criticize their public officials.

Goodmiller: if a speaker ignores the counci’ls out of order rulings and causing a disruption … with irrelevant speech disrupts, he or she may be removed …

Beckles: can they yell fire in this building?

Goodmiller. No. the two exceptions are yelling fire to endanger, and so called fighting words.

Bekcles: so the answer is no they can’t say what they want. Fighting words are intentionally directed … so venomous or full of malice. Incite retaliation. Not protected. Sounds to me like breach of peace by yelling fire and also to incite the hearer to want to retaliate.

Goodmiller: I certainly agree with the basic principles. The government woul have to prove the likelihood that the person addressed would immediately physically retaliate.

Myrick: what about protected classes? Harrasment, discrimination, is there any cases on that?

Goodmiller: have a first amendment right to hate speech. That is not prohibited. The city county or state can’t adopt a rule that says you can’t get up and say that in a meeting. Same with sexual harassment.

Booze: because you chose to be elected you have to take the attacks?

Goodmiller: I don’t take pleasure in saying this. But judges ruled that.
The courts have definitely agreed with that, the citizens, it’s the essence of democracy that citizens can come up and criticize their elected leaders.

Booze: tell me a fighting word?

Goodmiller: example from a case. Hey I wanna rip out your bleeping heart and feed it to you. I wanted to kill you. Pound your head in with an ice pick.
I feel like i’m back in law school. I graduated first in my class by the way.

Booze: was that an online study course?

Goodmiller: the point all the courts try to do is they have to be content neutral. Not the content, but the disruption.

Butt: 1942 case. I’ve heard a lot worse said in this council chamber than fascist and rackateer.

Mclaughlin: free speech have guarantees that people can say what they want but off topic is different.

Mayor: do not call people filth or dirt (pounds gavel stops resident)

resident Kenneth Davis: I’ve been called ignorant. You sit there. Lie on me. (talking to council).

resident Don Gosney: It’s the hostile reaction to protected speech that disrupts the meeting. Call me old fashioned but I still believe the people have a right to be part of the process of governing our community.

resident Bea Roberson: you think you’re queen but you’re not a judge.

Mayor ejects rev. davis for disruptions.

Mayoral candidate Mike Parker: the reality of the video shows that Beckles is minding her own business. Then (residents) yelling at her, harassed.

4th recess.

resident Dennis Dalton: the issue isn’t beckles, its whether we should have disruptions with meetings.

Butt: we definitely have work to do on this. I keep hearing about FA rights, but the city attorney’s memo shows that in fact there are multiple limitations to what people can say in this chamber.

Fighting words. We see all of this here.

Myrick: hateful comments have no place in the public square.

Booze: I can’t believe we’re putting this together.