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California law targets bullies to protect public meetings

At the annual meeting of the League of California Cities, members received a detailed report titled “Dealing with Disruptive Members of the Public”.

It included a history of dissent, a list of several recommended actions, and a typology of protesters known to show up at City Hall: The Meeting Demolishers. Character killers. The city’s amateur prosecutors. (“I conducted my own legal research.”)

It was 20 years ago.

In other words, the presence of outspoken citizens forcefully sharing their deep and enduring discontent with civic leaders is nothing new. This can actually be a healthy thing, with accountability being vital to any system that aims to represent the people it serves.

But the level of animosity, violent threats and reckless behavior has reached remarkable heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, surprising even longtime observers like Graham Knaus, head of the California State Assn. counties. He has spent almost a quarter of a century involved in local government.

“It’s not about people with different positions than their local officials,” Knaus said. “This is seriously disruptive behaviour. This is hate speech. This is the increase in intimidation and the number of death threats that have been made against local officials and their families.

The result is a new California law that will make it easier to conduct public business by spelling out how and when bullies, bad actors and dangerous belligerents can be kicked out so that school boards, city councils and other local government entities can do their part. work. .

The recently enacted legislation, Senate Bill 1100, amends the 69-year-old Brown Law, which requires local governments to call their meetings in public and guarantees people’s right to attend and participate.

Among other changes, it defines the meaning of “disturbing” – threatening to use force, willfully ignoring rules of conduct – and giving the president the power to oust unruly individuals after receiving a warning.

The latter may seem like an obvious small step, but it eliminates the need for a whole body vote, which may be impossible if things get out of hand and a meeting is a mess, or members are forced to flee the stage for their safety.

The bill is not, its co-author stressed, an effort to muzzle dissent or prevent anyone from speaking out as loudly as they would like.

“I consider myself a 1st Amendment purist,” said Dave Cortese, a Democratic senator from San Jose who has spent more than a decade in local government, serving on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. . On the contrary, argued Cortese, the legislation could strengthen free speech by specifying exactly how and when members of the public can be deported once they have been properly warned.

The law makes it clear that ‘if you’re going to be kicked out, it had better be for something real and current’ that prevents a meeting from taking place, Cortese said – not just for presenting a point of view opposed or having spoken sharply.

And if somehow the legislation fails in practice, Cortese vowed, “we will fix it.”

“We will fix it no matter who comes forward to expose these flaws,” he said. “Republicans or Democrats or ‘states decline’ or people who don’t even vote but want to be able to come in and complain.”

Protests, sometimes rowdy and crude, have been commonplace for decades in the council chambers of major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. But in recent years, the practice has increasingly spread to smaller communities — the new state law stemmed from threats to members of the Los Gatos City Council — and once innocuous councils overseeing libraries, the historic preservation, etc.

School board meetings, in particular, have become battle zones in fights over masks, remote learning and programs.

Blame it on the collective nervous breakdown from which the country seems to have suffered during three years of the pandemic. Blame it on the bad behavior modeled by politicians at the national level and the tendency to turn every matter, no matter how small, into a litmus test of red versus blue loyalties.

Robb Korinke, a local government consultant who has spent two decades attending and monitoring city council meetings, also blames social media.

“Twenty years ago you had a horsefly that knew it would hook up to the local access cable,” Korinke said. “It’s different when you know you can go viral. It really amplified the performative nature of a lot of these things.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when and where to draw the line between disruption and dissent.

Some argue that closing a public meeting is itself a form of protest, signaling not just discontent but a deeper conviction that a city council, school board or other governing body is so ineffective, incompetent or disconnected, that the only solution is to stop operating it.

But Korinke asks a reasonable question: “Does your dissent nullify another person’s ability to speak?” In other words, why should the loudest voices drown out all the others?

“Bullying and bullying behaviors don’t just make the discussion bigger, they also act as a deterrent,” Korinke observed. “This prevents the average citizen from being able to participate in these meetings, or even from wanting to. … We wouldn’t allow that kind of behavior in a courtroom. So why do we allow it at city council meetings? »

In seeking to contain the worst excesses without stifling protests, California’s new open meeting law finds welcome common ground.

No one wants a bunch of sheep to mindlessly do whatever their government tells them. But that’s no reason to act like a jerk.

One of an occasional series of proposals aimed at correcting our politics and strengthening democracy. Read more:

Los Angeles Times

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