Nina Smith: Statement in Opposition to Item I-3 on 7/1/14 Richmond Council Agenda

blogimage.jpgDear Mayor and City Council,

I am writing to express my concern about some of the rhetoric put out by Councilmember Beckles in support of Agenda Item I-3 on this evening’s City Council Agenda.  Item I-3 is a proposed resolution which would “DIRECT the city manager to work with the city attorney and the police chief to draft a resolution to establish rules and procedures regarding disruptions during the City Council meetings.”  

In and of itself, this language is so vague that it is hard to have concrete objections but Councilmember Beckles has made public statements soliciting popular input in favor of the resolution by saying that these disruptions originate with “hate speech” which “needs to stop before it escalates further into hate crimes.  Hate speech often turns into hate crimes and we as a community cannot allow these behaviors to continue in our city. . . . It perpetuates violence in our city.”  (letter from Councilmember Beckles introducing a press release dated June 30, 2014)  These statements and her previous public statements in favor of a 6-month ban to be imposed against members of the public who have been repeatedly disruptive at Council meetings make it clear that her intent is to find some way to prevent certain offensive speech from being allowed at City Council meetings.  This causes me grave concern for the first amendment rights of all of us.

As the statement quoted above demonstrates, Councilmember Beckles seems to be confused about the very important distinction between speech and behavior.  Her logic seems to be that if hate speech is tolerated at City Council meetings it will lead to hate crimes and therefore the speech must be banned.  There is no evidence that this is in fact the case and she cites none.  And of equal concern is the question of who will define what is “hate speech?”  How will members of the public who have strongly held opinions know whether what they have to say will offend the Mayor or other Council members to the point where their opinions cause them to be banned?  The First Amendment is specifically designed to prohibit the government from banning speech because it doesn’t agree with its message.  There are very few narrow exceptions to this principle and, in order to prevent a chilling effect on people’s freedom to speak up, where exceptions are made they must be defined very narrowly and concretely with careful rules to ensure that the standard is not applied discriminatorily. 

Just the threat of the Council passing such a policy, or considering banning certain categories of speech, or banning people for extended periods of time, has a chilling effect on the right of the public to participate in our City government.  I urge the Council to reject this proposed resolution or anything along these lines and get back to the business of our City.


Nina Smith

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