Public Protests Speech Limits in Orange County

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Meeting in closed session Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors discussed potential legal action challenging time limits on public comments after several people at a morning meeting said the rules stifle their speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California put supervisors on notice this month of alleged constitutional violations that trouble it and members of the public.

The board says its rules deter people from commenting on off-topic items and make meetings more efficient.

But in a March 13 letter to the five commissioners, all Republicans, the ACLU said a Nov. 8, 2016 rule change that limits comment on agenda items to three minutes violates California’s Brown Act and the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU has threatened legal action unless the board rolls back the rule.

The board reserves the right to limit the public comment period to 20 minutes and does not allow public comment after the board reads each agenda item. Chairwoman Michelle Steele can cut into time again if more than seven people sign up to speak.

“Speakers are allotted to speak no more than three minutes during public comments and three minutes during a public hearing with twenty minutes cumulative for all speakers, unless extended by the chair,” the board’s March 28 agenda states.

At the Tuesday morning meeting, several members of the public, including two members of the ACLU, criticized the restrictions.

ACLU homelessness advocate Eve Garrow underscored the importance of allowing people with less political power than “moneyed stockholders” to talk.

“When the board restricts public comments to three minutes for all agenda items, and sometimes even limits it to one minute, we cannot engage in meaningful public comments,” Garrow said. “It does a disservice to the groups we represent.”

ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme cited an instance during the morning meeting when Steele told people to stop applauding during the public comment period.

“Applause is a simple way for people to express their concurrence with sentiments made by a speaker,” Hamme told the board. “They are not inherently disruptive. Disruption only occurs when there’s an actual disruption in violation of the meetings and norms.”

Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett proposed the time limits as a way for the public to comment without having to sit through the entirety of a meeting, the Orange County Register reported.

Fourth District Supervisor Shawn Nelson also backed the amendment pointing to three men he said had repeatedly used meetings to talk about off-agenda items.

“It’s making a mockery,” Nelson said, according to the Register. “If we get to a point where there are average folks who come down here and have more items than that they want to discuss, the chair always has the privilege to make an exception, and certainly we can always move the rule back.”

At a Jan. 24, 2016 meeting, speakers were restricted to one minute of public comment after 58 people submitted comment cards, ACLU SoCal said.

But the manager of a company offering a wine tour and the president of a corporate airline were allowed to exceed the time limit, while the board silenced homeless and poverty advocates if they went over their minute of allotted time, Hamme wrote in the letter.

California’s Brown Act allows “reasonable” rules that limit public comment periods. But Hamme says the board’s restrictions are unreasonable and fall afoul of constitutional protections of speech.

ACLU SoCal has cited other rules barring people from directly addressing individual supervisors, requirements that speakers identify themselves on comment cards, and prohibitions of signs, posters and banners.

The language of the board’s rules on signs restricts objects that could pose a danger to people in the event of an emergency.

“This is not unreasonable, except that the board and sheriff seem to interpret it as no signs at all,” Hamme wrote in an article at the ACLU SoCal website.

At a previous meeting, Garrow took a small yellow card stock sign to a meeting that stated: “Housing First.” She was not allowed to enter the room with the sign, the ACLU said.

Hamme said outside the meeting room Tuesday that opposition to the speech rules has developed over several years. Public comment was previously unlimited, Hamme said, then restricted to nine minutes per speaker until the most recent rule change, which was passed by 4-to-1 vote.

Hamme cited an exchange in which Supervisor Todd Spitzer silenced a woman after she addressed Supervisor Nelson to ask why he had not answered her call.

“That incident highlights the absurdity of the rule itself: that you can only address the board in its entirety rather than the individual speaker,” Hamme said. “There are clearly going to be situations where it’s inappropriate to, for example, take the board of supervisors to task for the actions of a single supervisor.”

Spitzer was the only board member to vote against the November amendment.

Hamme said he hoped the board would consider the letter carefully in its closed session and roll back the rules.

“That said, I always acknowledge the political climate which we’re in and the course of the board over the last several years,” Hamme said.

None of the board’s five members responded to an emailed request for comment.

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