Richmond City Attorney: Beckles’ proposal to ban disruptive public members most likely unconstitutional

Richmond police outraged by Beckles' Facebook post
Richmond Vice Mayor and Richmond Progressive Alliance member Jovanka Beckles.

Richmond Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles’ push to suspend disruptive public members from attending council meetings for six months most likely violates the First Amendment, according to an analysis from City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller.

Beckles’ ban proposal particularly targets a few residents who she has butted heads with over the years on issues and who have reportedly hurled anti-gay slurs at her in the past.

Opponents of the vice mayor’s proposal have argued that a ban would give elected leaders undue power to oust their detractors from the governmental process.

That argument is supported in a June 26 letter from Goodmiller to the mayor and councilmembers. In the letter, Goodmiller said he consulted with city attorneys from other California cities and found that suspending public members from future meetings “would most likely violate the law.”

“A six-month ban would likely be viewed as a prior restraint of speech based on past conduct under existing court decisions,” Goodmiller said. “Such a ban would arguably give the public official the ‘power to deny use of the forum in advance of the actual expression.’ Courts have held that prior restraints on speech are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

A past attempt by the Los Angeles City Council to ban certain public members failed, Goodmiller added, when a federal judge found that the city ran “afoul of the First Amendment.”

Opponents have also argued that Beckles signed up to be a politician and thus should rise above personal attacks from citizens and focus on doing her job. Goodmiller’s letter addresses that argument, as well.

“While also acknowledging that ‘it is asking much of City Council members, who have given themselves to public service, to tolerate profanities and personal attacks,’ courts have held ‘that is what is required by the First Amendment,’ Goodmiller said.

Goodmiller also suggests that Richmond council’s current rules governing disruptive behavior among public members should suffice.

“The current City Council Rules of Procedure and California law allow the mayor to rule a speaker out of order for speaking on matters outside the jurisdiction of the City Council, which include irrelevant personal attacks that are truly off topic. If a speaker ignores this ruling and persists, a speaker may be removed from the meeting if his or her conduct is causing the actual disruption impeding the progress of the meeting. Certainly, ignoring the mayor’s rulings and persisting with truly irrelevant, personal attacks could be considered disruptive if such conduct prevents the city council from tending to business within its subject matter jurisdiction.”

Despite receiving the city attorney’s letter, Beckles continues to push for the ban. Interestingly, Beckles’ ban proposal came at the same time as she defended cussing out a fellow councilmember in council chambers, and also reportedly verbally assaulting a public member in a subsequent meeting.

Meanwhile, opponents argue that Beckles’ ban proposal disrupted the city council’s focus on more pressing matters such as the city’s budget deficit.