Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill on Monday that establishes guidelines for when officials can have disruptive people ejected from public meetings in response to months of escalating verbal assaults and threats against local government leaders.
The bill’s debate pitted the need to protect citizens’ rights to free speech and public assembly against the concern for decorum and the safety of officials.
As the country experiences social unrest due to events like the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and disagreements over public school curriculum, this issue has become more pressing.
Some officials in states from Nevada to Virginia resigned under the pressure of threats and harassment, while others questioned who would want to serve in the first place.
The California bill would allow the presiding officer to have a disruptive person removed from public meetings, but only after giving the person a warning that their behavior is disruptive and will result in their ejection if it persists. If the disruptive person is warned and continues their behavior, they may be removed from the premises. Disrupting is defined in the measure as well, and it can include things like making threats or not following reasonable and legal regulations.
The California State Association of Counties and the Urban Counties of California said they wanted the bill to pass because they wanted specific guidance written into statute to better implement the Brown Act, the California law that requires transparency in public meetings.
An increase in disruptive behavior, hate speech, intimidation, and threats against local elected officials, staff, and members of the public with opposing views has been noted, and this measure will help local agencies address it, the county organizations said.
However, the non-partisan Californians for Good Governance is concerned that local officials will use the bill “as a general license to limit public participation.”
In opposing the bill, the group argued, “The reality is that participatory democracy is a messy business, but limiting public input is not the answer as it moves our government towards authoritarianism and away from democracy.”
The public’s robust right to speak to their government officials is respected, and government officials are given the latitude they need to do their jobs, according to David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for free speech rights.
For the most part, “it’s upholding the public’s 1st Amendment rights and carving out very limited exceptions for removing particular individuals who may cross the line,” Loy said. Truly disruptive ideas are, well, truly disruptive. That can’t be the only reason why the city council is ignoring them.
Protesters disrupting several meetings of the Los Gatos Town Council near San Jose last year was the final straw for state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) and Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell). The two state senators from the district were particularly offended by the personal attacks made against Mayor Marico Sayoc and her family.
The city council had to ban the public from the council chambers at least twice in response, but the disturbances prompted Cortese and Low to draft the legislation.
Earlier this month, as senators sent the bill to Newsom without debate, Cortese said, “Across our state, public officials and public attendees continue to deal with disorderly conduct at meetings at such a high magnitude that critical business and the legislative process as a whole has become impeded.”
He claimed his legislation would “enhance public access to meetings and enhance the democratic process” by establishing protocols for handling interruptions and allowing officials to resume their duties promptly.
There were no remarks from Newsom as he signed the bill. Democrats in both chambers of Congress voted in favor of the bill, while Republicans opposed it.
Few people in Los Gatos were spared the vitriol directed at Sayoc by protesters, and that includes those who showed up at her home. A number of high-profile politicians, including the lieutenant governor of Hawaii, the mayor of Sacramento, and Newsom himself, have encountered protesters at their homes in recent years.
Legislators in California have not been immune to disruption, and some have even been physically assaulted. During the 2019 legislative session, an anti-vaccine protester pushed Democratic state senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) outside the Capitol, and a protester in the same year threw human blood from the gallery onto senators below, disrupting the final day of the session.
The Los Angeles Times was the first to publish this story.
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