Richmond City Council requests probe of First Amendment speech limits

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The Richmond City Council  Tuesday requested the city attorney identify ways to silence foul-mouthed members of the public during council meetings without violating their First Amendment rights.

The 6-1 vote was in part a response to a number of notable public clashes between Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles and certain community members. Beckles’ critics – including two reverends – say she incited the recent confrontations with inappropriate and aggressive behavior.

While disruptions during council meetings are common and caused by both council members and the public, those in favor of testing the limits of the First Amendment say they want to clamp down on a few residents who consistently hurl anti-gay slurs at Beckles, who is openly gay.

Beckles initially proposed to ban public members for six months for engaging in hate speech or disrupting council sessions in other ways. However, City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller stated in a memo that hate speech is protected under the Constitution and that banning members of the public from attending future meetings is legally problematic. Goodmiller said individuals can be removed from meetings for disruptive conduct or threats, but not for insulting council members. He referenced a court ruling stating that council members “who have given themselves to public service” must tolerate profanities and personal attacks.

Beckles – who proposed the measure — Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and council members Jael Myrick and Tom Butt disagreed with Goodmiller and said they were confident the city attorney could find a way to rid hate speech and other foul language from council chambers.

More than a dozen members of the public spoke out against Beckles’ proposal Tuesday. Some blamed McLaughlin for her inability to lead meetings and for consistently trying to shut down public opposition to the Richmond Progressive Alliance. The mayor and the RPA blamed their opponents, namely council members Corky Booze and Nat Bates, for the disruptions.

“It’s not the speech but the hostile reaction to protected speech that disrupts the meetings,” resident Don Gosney said.