Should L.A.'s supervisors say 'shut up'? to commenters

Responding to Jim Newton's column on Monday supporting a proposal by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to limit comments at L.A. County Board of Supervisors meetings, Los Angeles resident George Rheault wrote:

"Newton doesn't mention that opportunities to speak directly to the supervisors, with a guarantee of at least a good chance of being heard by them, are virtually nonexistent outside meetings.

"If the supervisors gave more respect to what their constituents had to say — perhaps by allowing more, not less, time — more reasonable folks would show up, the grandstanding attention-seekers would have less incentive to highlight the absurdities of a now less absurd show, and simple peer pressure would elevate the tone and substance of the comments.

"Newton fails to point out why the few hardy souls who offer their reasonable observations often make multiple comments: They are trying to get the most bang out their substantial investment in parking fees and time lost from travel and work. Newton denigrates these folks while failing to mention this oft-forgotten and not insubstantial price."

Jim Newton responds:

If I understand Rheault correctly, he believes that "grandstanding attention-seekers" might behave better if they and others were given more time rather than less. I'm not sure I agree.

The larger point of my column was to examine whether the proposed changes to the time given to speakers who appear before the board add up to an infringement on their right to speak or to petition their government for redress of grievances — constitutionally protected rights. Rheault and others are correct that many of those who come to board meetings have legitimate complaints, and the supervisors would be wrong to cut them off, especially to protect themselves from criticism.

At the same time, there are those who abuse that privilege, signing up to discuss item after item, prolonging the meetings and using their time to rant. That's speech, yes, but more like babble than substance. It seems to me that the supervisors have the right to impose reasonable restrictions on those comments, so long as they do so with care. It's one thing to debate the county's beach rules or its management of the jails or its budget; it's another to predict the end of the world or accuse the Department of Homeland Security of being a tool of the Mexican Mafia.

Speech is a right I take seriously. But I recognize that even speech, which is more broadly protected than almost any other constitutional right, has its limits. The board has both the right and the responsibility to patrol those limits with care.

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