Council to consider rules on speech


The Costa Mesa City Council is scheduled Tuesday to consider ways that public speakers may be removed from the chambers if their conduct is deemed overly disruptive.

These behaviors run the gamut from swearing to being seen as simply repeating what other speakers have said.

The proposed ordinance, prepared by the city attorney’s office, seeks to correct the public comments portion of the municipal code, which had been ruled unconstitutional. It also would strike a balance between City Hall’s interest in maintaining meeting decorum and the public’s right to free speech, according to city staff.


The staff report notes that the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants free speech, though some public forums — such as a City Council meeting — can still be subject to “time, place and manner” regulations.

Any such regulations, however, are in regards to a speaker’s conduct, not his or her viewpoint, staff wrote.

A speaker’s “disorderly behavior,” provided that it “actually disrupts, disturbs or otherwise impedes the orderly conduct of any city council meeting,” can cause him or her to be barred from the meeting.

The decision to bar a speaker can come from the mayor or a majority of the council, according to the proposed ordinance.

“Disorderly behavior,” it says, can include speaking out of turn without recognition from the presiding officer (the mayor); yelling or using a “loud, disturbing voice”; profanity; “obscene” gestures; continuing to speak after the allotted time (generally three minutes); throwing objects; speaking to issues not within the council’s purview or jurisdiction; or speaking to the audience rather than the council.

Enforcement may start with an initial warning, though if the behavior persists, the mayor or a council majority can bar the person from the remainder of the meeting.

City staff members say the proposed ordinance is a result of a recent appellate court decision that ruled portions of Costa Mesa’s municipal code unconstitutional when it came to a ban on “personal, impertinent, profane, insolent or slanderous remarks” during public comment periods.

According to the court’s decision in Acosta vs. City of Costa Mesa, the city’s code is “unconstitutionally overbroad on its face because it unnecessarily sweeps a substantial amount of non-disruptive protected speech or expressive conduct within its prohibiting language.”

The lawsuit stemmed from a January 2006 council meeting, during which Benito Acosta spoke about an earlier proposal for city police to partner with federal authorities to enforce federal immigration laws.

At one point in his remarks, Acosta, who also goes by Coyotl Tezcatlipoca, addressed the audience and asked the visitors to stand in support of his viewpoint — an act done by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist earlier that evening.

Then-Mayor Allan Mansoor replied that the standing wasn’t going to happen and quickly called for a recess. Mansoor had also asked Gilchrist’s supporters to remain seated.

Acosta continued attempting to speak until he was escorted out by police.

Acosta then sued the city and Police Department, though judges later ruled that his free-speech rights were not violated.

The proposed ordinance has been reviewed by the city’s attorney in the Acosta case and Acosta’s attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union.


Initial reactions

Robin Leffler, president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government — a grass-roots group that frequently disagrees with the council majority — said she was concerned about “unduly repetitive” comments being considered disruptive.

According to the ordinance, “Continuing to speak after being informed by the presiding officer that the comments are unduly repetitive of either prior comments from that speaker or comments by other speakers.”

“I think that if that says what it seems to say in plain English, it’s unduly prohibitive,” Leffler said. “It’s forbidding people to speak in their own voice, in their own way.”

She noted that, on significant issues, many will come to the podium and express similar viewpoints. If such repetition is prohibited and one person’s decision can stifle their speech, that act is “reprehensible,” Leffler said.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said the proposed ordinance has been in discussions for some time, but he didn’t think it would significantly change how the council meetings are run.

“People have their right to come up and speak to the council for three minutes,” he said. “As long as it’s within the purview of the council, they’ve got their three minutes to speak on whatever they want to speak to. That’s their right.”

In response to Leffler’s comment, Righeimer said he’s never cut off speakers for being repetitive.

“Some would say we’re too liberal of what we allow at the microphone, that we allow people to repeat themselves,” he said.

He added that he often shows leniency to City Hall newcomers by giving them more than the allotted three minutes to speak.