Anyone making “personal, impertinent or profane remarks,” or repeating themselves at a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting could be in violation of rules being considered Tuesday by the panel, and could be removed from the premises.
The proposed policy released on Friday has drawn concern from attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the rules may trample on free speech rights and public meeting laws.
Black Lives Matter members also said Monday that the policy is an attempt to silence their group.
Black Lives Matter activists have been attending Police Commission meetings since last year’s fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford, an unarmed black man in South Los Angeles, but tensions have mounted in recent months with activists calling for the firings of the officers who shot the 25-year-old.
Commission President Steve Soboroff halted two consecutive meetings in recent weeks, after he deemed demonstrations from Black Lives Matter activists as too disruptive.
Soboroff first recessed a meeting this summer following outbursts from audience members. At a subsequent meeting he again stopped the meeting briefly due to outbursts, then cut short a public comment period when a speaker demanded that he be given more time to talk after losing his allotted time when the meeting was halted earlier.
Under the proposed rules requested by Soboroff, anyone who addresses the panel during the formal public comment would be required to behave in “an orderly manner and shall refrain from making repetitious, personal, impertinent or profane remarks regarding or directed toward any member of the board, staff, or the general public.”
The decorum rules also prohibit audience members from taking part in “loud, threatening or abusive language, whistling, stamping feet or other acts which cause a disruption of the meeting or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the meeting.”
Audience members also would not be able to display signs that “disturb, disrupt or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the meeting or which create any obstruction” to other people taking part in the meeting.
The proposed rules also prohibit any recording or photographing of the meetings if they disrupt the meeting.
Failing to follow the rules could mean being removed from the board room, and resisting removal could result in being arrested and charged with a crime.
In a letter delivered to the commission Monday, ACLU staff attorney Catherine Wagner warned that the policy’s language could be “construed in ways inconsistent with the protections for free speech in both the United States and California constitutions.”
Wagner wrote that the restrictions against “mere speech” that are “personal, impertinent, profane, or abusive” should not be considered “actual disruption” of the meeting. She urged that the board revise the policy so that the act of speaking would not be considered as disruption.
“The board cannot require that public speakers or members of the public who attend commission meetings be courteous, respectful, polite, or even that they refrain from using accusatory, inflammatory, offensive, or insulting language,” she said.
Soboroff told City News Service on Monday that he asked attorneys from the City Attorney’s Office and the commission’s executive director, Richard Tefank, to draw up the proposed policy after the recent disruptions, which caused him to stop the meetings.
“I’m not about to let people cancel the meetings of the Los Angeles Police Commission whenever they want to get up and start screaming,” Soboroff said.
Saying that he understands public speakers and audience members have the freedom to say what they want, he does take issue with participants who “walk around chanting and ranting” in the board room.
“We can’t conduct a meeting when the audience is running amok,” he said.
Soboroff said he is open to the ACLU’s proposed revisions and has his own ideas for changing the language, including taking out the restriction against repetitious remarks. He said he emailed Wagner on Monday asking for “wordsmithing” suggestions on changing the policy’s language.
Soboroff said he considers the policy “a friendly way to remind people that we have business to do.”
“We’re not trying to impede people’s right to free speech, we’re trying to have a safe place for everyone to do it,” he said.
Melina Abdullah of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter responded to the rules Monday saying they are clearly directed at its members.
The rules are “one of the most blatant efforts to silence an engaged public in recent memory and a direct attack on Black Lives Matter and the black public,” she told CNS.
Abdullah said rather than viewing the increased participation of Black Lives Matter members “as a nod to the democratic process, the Police Commission has taken a staunchly adversarial stance.”
Commissioners have responded by “yelling at participants, telling them to ‘shut up,’ refusing to listen to public comments,” and diverting their attention to their smartphones.
Soboroff defended his reaction to the Black Lives Matter activists, saying “I know that I have the obligation to listen to abusive statements because you know, people have the right to say what they want to say … but don’t expect me to respond or have to look them in the eye.”
Stephen Rohde, an attorney who specializes in the First Amendment and constitutional law, told CNS that while the board “is allowed to maintain order,” they should not adopt “rules to punish criticism or viewpoints which they disagree with.”
Rohde said the currently proposed policies “go so far as clearing the entire meeting because of comments made by a group or group of individuals,” a response that he described as “overkill.”
Speakers should be given the chance to “to modify their speech or their conduct,” Rohde said. “Whatever their violation is, they should not be immediately ejected from the meeting. They should not be immediately silenced.”
“They can be given a warning, and a good moderators know how to control speakers and control an audience,” Rohde said.
— City News Service