RICHMOND -- The Richmond City Council took on the U.S. Constitution on Tuesday, directing its city attorney and police chief to explore possible limits on First Amendment speech in council meetings, and drew a flurry of criticism from the public.
"It's not the speech but the hostile reaction to protected speech that disrupts the meetings," said resident Don Gosney. "Call me old fashioned, but I still believe the people have a right to be part of the process of governing our community."
The item, which passed 6-1, was proposed by Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, who was the focus of a widely broadcast cellphone video exchanging angry screams with residents during an argument after a council meeting last week. In the video, Beckles, who is of African descent, told her critics they were "bad examples of what it means to be black" and their speech is "why kids are dying," while they fired back "Why don't you die!"
Beckles sought to direct staff to craft new laws giving the council power to ban residents for up to six months for using "hate speech" or "fighting words."
"This chamber is so toxic and hostile you can feel it through the television set," Beckles said. "Some people don't come because it's so toxic, that's a violation of their free speech. This is not about me."
Richmond City Council meetings routinely run past midnight and feature a stew of homophobic, racist and other unruly remarks. Beckles, the first openly lesbian council member in the city's history, has been the target of dozens of homophobic remarks by a few members of the public. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin called four recesses Tuesday to tamp down disruptions, and ordered police to eject one man, the Rev. Kenneth Davis, for speaking out of order. Earlier this year, the council briefly cleared the entire public from the chamber during a meeting, drawing heavy criticism.
Davis was one of more than 20 speakers who lambasted the council Tuesday for even sniffing around limitations on their free speech rights. Davis played the audio of his argument with Beckles last week, which featured unsavory language by both parties.
City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller, who penned a seven-page memo on the topic for the council's review, cautioned the council that government agencies always have a high burden to hurdle in trying to limit speech and, especially, banning members of the public from future meetings.
"Our memo specifically addresses that point, banning future attendance, and concludes it is not legally permissible," Goodmiller said. "We advise against that." Goodmiller added that individuals could be removed from meetings for disruptive conduct, but not speech content.
But councilmembers were unpersuaded. Councilman Jael Myrick insisted that, "hate speech has no place in the public square."
Beckles said, "The answer is no, (the public) can't say what they want. Fighting words are not protected."
Councilman Tom Butt noted a legal precedent in which a man was imprisoned for calling elected officials "fascists" in 1942, and said the council today has the power to limit speech if it chooses to use it.
"I hear a lot worse in this council chamber than fascist," Butt said.
But Goodmiller said hate speech is unequivocally protected, and that "fighting words" can be limited, but that a high burden is on the government "to prove the likelihood that the person addressed would immediately physically retaliate."
Councilman Corky Booze, known for his own loquacious style, was the lone dissenter. He called the attempt to limit speech "ridiculous" and noted that elected officials are routinely subjected to venomous attacks.
"It's our responsibility to take that heat from the public from the podium," Booze said. "You chose to be elected so you have to take what the public has to say."
Booze asked Goodmiller directly, "the public can say whatever they want about us whether we like it or not, right?"
"Yes," Goodmiller said.
During public comment, McLaughlin pounded her gavel to interrupt one man who was using salty language to address the council.
"Do not call people filth or dirt!" McLaughlin said.
Goodmiller told the council they have the ability to maintain decorum, like calling people out of order for being off topic or going past their allotted time. But the content of their speech is almost always protected, he said.
"Irrelevant attacks are out of order but the government has to be really careful about prohibiting those," Goodmiller said. "The citizens have an absolute right to get up and criticize their public officials."
Another resident, Bea Roberson, took her time at the podium to rip Beckles for proposing to craft the new rules to regulate speech.
"You think you're the queen but you're not a judge," Roberson said.
Staff is expected to bring back to the council within a month a proposal balancing free speech rights and the council's rights to run its meetings.
By Robert Rogers