The City of Los Angeles will pay $215,000 to end a free-speech lawsuit involving a man who was kicked out of a public meeting after showing up wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.
Lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to settle the lawsuit with Venice resident Michael Hunt, who said city leaders had violated his constitutional rights by ejecting him from a session of the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners in 2011. Hunt, who is black, attended the meeting while wearing both the KKK hood and a T-shirt that featured a profanity and a racial slur used to describe African Americans.
At the 2011 meeting, then-commission president Barry Sanders told Hunt his outfit violated the city's rules of decorum and said Hunt would be ejected if he did not remove the KKK headgear and "offensive signage." Hunt was later escorted out by officers and received a citation saying he had disturbed a public assembly, according to his lawsuit.
The city declined to prosecute and the citation was dismissed. But Hunt, a vendor on the Venice Boardwalk, said he had been wrongfully arrested and accused the city of violating his rights to free speech, assembly and due process by preventing him from speaking at the meeting.
Attorney Stephen Rohde, who represented Hunt, said this week's settlement vote "means that the city is held accountable when it violates civil rights and First Amendment rights."
"These rules of decorum should not be used to silence people unless they engage in actual disruption of the meeting," he said. "And actual disruption doesn’t mean upsetting people or offending people."
Councilman Bernard Parks described the payment as a "business decision," arguing the city would have had to pay far more had the case gone to trial. A judge in a separate federal case recently found that the city violated the free speech rights of two other men who were repeatedly ejected from council meetings.
Although a jury awarded each man only $1 over that matter, the city still had to pay around $600,000 in legal fees, Parks said. Rohde also was the plaintiffs' attorney in that lawsuit.
"This is one of those things where you hold your nose and vote," Parks said. "If this thing had gone to a trial and [Hunt] had gotten $1, the attorneys' fees would have been larger than what we paid to settle it."
The commission's rules of decorum prohibit audience members from engaging in "disorderly or boisterous conduct," including threatening or abusive language, whistling, or stamping of feet.
Government agencies legally can use such rules to restrict disruptive speech, but the disruption has to be so great that the agency is incapable of conducting its public business, according to a report on Hunt's case sent to the council by City Atty. Mike Feuer.
Witnesses at the 2011 meeting did not think Hunt had been a disruption, Feuer's report said.
"Rather most of those in attendance felt that [Hunt's] garb was only mildly distracting and confusing, and that under the circumstances, he should have been allowed to stay,” the report said.
Rohde said his client has worn the KKK hood and the T-shirt with the racial slur to various meetings to turn the tables on a city government he believes is "engaging in discrimination." "He has co-opted these images and uses them to protest back against the city," he said.
The settlement is not Hunt's first victory over the city. He previously received a $264,286 jury award stemming from a 2009 lawsuit in which he challenged the city's vending restrictions on the Venice Boardwalk. The city also paid Hunt's lawyer $340,000 in legal fees for that case.
Hunt claimed in his latest lawsuit that the city's handling of the 2011 meeting caused him to experience emotional distress, among other things. The city's lawyers, in turn, said Hunt "beseeched" the officers who escorted him from the room for 20 minutes to give him a citation.
Once he was outside the meeting room, Hunt removed his hood and thanked the security officers for providing him with a "big payday," according to the city's report on the case.
Rohde said his client made no such statement.
"I do think he told the authorities that this was a big mistake and he wanted to hold them accountable," Rohde said. "They may have heard it differently."
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