The Richmond City Council on Tuesday took a step toward adopting new rules to curb hate speech and other disruptions at its contentious meetings.
The council voted 6-1, with Councilman Corky Boozé dissenting, to direct City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and City Manager Bill Lindsay to craft several new rules that strengthen city leaders’ powers to control outbursts during meetings.
Supporters of Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, who has pushed for the new rules for months, came out in force Tuesday. Beckles has been the target of personal attacks and other outbursts during meetings, sometimes regarding her sexual orientation. Beckles is the first openly gay elected official in the city’s history.
Beckles suggested changing the rules to “figure out how we can legally protect a group of people from verbal violence.”
The councilmembers directed Goodmiller and Lindsay to prepare and propose changes to the rules. The changes include a clarification of what a disruption is, adoption of a policy on discriminatory and harassing remarks, clarification that the chambers is a campaign-free zone and examples of acceptable and unacceptable conduct.
As the meeting began, a woman handed out red ribbons to members of the audience as a symbol of support for Beckles. Many attendees brought homemade signs expressing their feelings.
More than 50 residents at the crowded Tuesday night meeting signed up to speak during the open forum for public comment. Most spoke out against the language that has been leveled at Beckles.
Many of the speakers accused Boozé and Councilman Nat Bates of contributing to the hostile climate in the council chambers, and asked them to reprimand their supporters when they engage in hateful speech.
“I am here tonight because I abhor misogyny, I abhor racism, and I abhor homophobia” said Diane Livia, a lifelong East Bay resident. “Those words describe the nature of the hate speech that has been directed at Ms. Beckles here in the past, and tolerated, sadly tolerated, and tacitly supported by certain members of this council.”
Rev. Kamal Hassan was one of a handful of religious leaders who spoke in support of Beckles.
“We who have been excluded must be against exclusion in all its forms,” Hassan said, referencing the Civil Rights movement.
Mark Wassberg, identified by councilmembers and attendees as one of the people who has engaged in hateful speech, said the mayor and the city council are violating his free speech rights.
“The mayor doesn’t like what I say, and she cuts me off,” Wassberg said. “She said I don’t have the right to speak.”
Wassberg went on to say, “I know for a fact that homosexuals and lesbians have no morality,” but said he has not crossed the line into hate speech.
“If I was dressing like the Klan or the Nazis, that’s hate,” he said.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin called Wassberg out of order moments later and directed a police officer to escort him from the chamber.
The 6-1 vote came after a tense and prolonged discussion between Boozé, who voted against the item, and Goodmiller.
“I believe there is a violation of people’s civil rights here,” Boozé said, requesting that the Attorneys General of California and the United States be consulted.
Before voting on the proposal, Beckles acknowledged the difficulty of using rules to regulate speech.
“I realize that disruption and hate speech aren’t easily handled by the law,” she said. “I encourage the community to hold council members accountable for setting a respectful tone and making it very clear to their supporters that hateful behavior and hateful remarks will not be tolerated.”
The city manager expects finalized suggestions for rule changes to be presented at a city council meeting in October.
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