REGION — A public speaker’s racist outburst during a recent county Board of Supervisors meeting has prompted county elected officials to change how the public can participate in open discussion, raising questions about whether these new guidelines infringe on residents’ constitutionally protected rights to free speech.
A new board policy prohibits “disruptive conduct” and public discussion on consent calendar items during meetings while limiting public comment to one minute per person if there are more than 10 individuals wishing to comment on issues not related to land use.
The chairman, currently Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, also has the power to shut down any member of the public for speech they deem in violation of the new rules.
Fletcher and Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Nora Vargas voted in favor of the change, while Supervisor Joel Anderson opposed it. Supervisor Jim Desmond, who was absent from the meeting, also opposed the board’s action with the new policy.
The policy change was adopted after a man said he wanted several of the supervisors dead and directed a racial slur at county Public Health Director Dr. Wilma Wooten, who is Black, during a Nov. 2 board meeting.
But the board’s attempt to restrict hate speech and inappropriate conduct in a public forum has been met with mixed reactions, with First Amendment advocates railing against the sweeping new changes.
San Diego-based attorney Cory Briggs, who represents Project for Open Government, has requested the board reverse the new policy under threat of legal action.
Briggs, along with numerous elected officials and community members, condemned the individual’s words and actions in the strongest possible terms. However, while the man’s speech was grotesque and unacceptable, it is protected speech under the First Amendment, Briggs said, who took particular issue with the vague and subjective language contained within the board’s new policy.
Briggs said there are two components of the policy change under scrutiny, namely proscribing public comment on consent calendar items and limiting what the public can discuss and how long they can speak.
“One is a transparency issue and one is a First Amendment issue,” Briggs said.
Under the new policy, the board now has the power to claim any speaker voicing legitimate dissent is exhibiting abusive behavior or language. According to Briggs, allowing the chairman to be the sole arbiter of acceptable speech or behavior likely wouldn’t hold up to constitutional scrutiny.
Additionally, Briggs said these types of rules can allow corruption to seep into the board by preventing a more transparent process for residents to address their elected leaders.
“Their definition empowers the chair to admonish anyone who makes such comments, and the definition says that such comments are legally protected speech that don’t constitute criminal activity or incite violence,” Briggs said. “That’s exactly what is protected under the First Amendment. If you get up there and say something that is disliked, you’re going to get admonished.”
The Coast News submitted questions to Vargas and Lawson-Remer but they were not returned. James Canning, communications director for Fletcher, said the supervisor has “moved on to the people’s business,” but replied with a previous statement. Neither Canning nor Fletcher addressed the chairman’s newfound ability to determine what constitutes acceptable behavior or speech.
“Today we took action to reform our rules and procedures to ensure we can have a safe and healthy environment to conduct the people’s business while allowing full public participation,” Canning’s statement reads. “San Diegans want to see progress on the challenges our region faces — affordable housing, homelessness, and ensuring safe and healthy communities. It is now time for us to get back to work on the real issues our region faces.”
Also, dozens of local business and academic leaders applauded the board’s decision in a letter to the board, including San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, San Diego Democratic Party, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and Dr. Adela de la Torre, president of San Diego State University.
“We all understand and support the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech,” the letter reads. “It is a vital part of any government that espouses the virtues of freedom and democracy. However, it is not an open invitation for individuals to perpetuate racism or hate speech. We must do better. We must return civility and respect the process of governing.”