OPINION: Must we tolerate intolerance?
on September 29, 2014
Late last Tuesday night, as the clock in the Richmond City Council chamber was reaching close to 11 p.m., a character familiar to anyone who has spent an evening at a city council meeting stood up to speak hatefully against the Latino and gay community.
A series of diatribes, shamefully commonplace in Richmond City Council meetings, was cut short as Mayor Gayle McLaughlin had had enough and interrupted, asking the speaker to stop talking.
This provoked an angrier response from the speaker, who started yelling and defending his right to speak. As McLaughlin instructed police to escort him out of the building for his disruptiveness, he hurled a round of expletives at the council. This left a vitriolic, hateful flavor in the room, despite the 40 speakers or so who had spent the evening showing support and solidarity with the council against such hate speech.
Hate speech had been momentarily silenced, but it continues to exist at meeting after meeting. The purveyors of such speech are quick to remind everyone of their go-to Constitutional trump card: the First Amendment’s provision for freedom of speech.
The bullies pound councilwoman Jovanka Beckles with abuse week after week, playing the “free speech” card, mercilessly trying to prevent her from doing her job as Vice Mayor. As soon as she shows even an ounce of a reaction, the bullies pounce. When a cell phone recording was released of her after a council meeting telling a bully to “get the f**k out of my face,” her opponents lined up on KTVU, labeling her a disgrace and calling her to account for her outburst. She is publicly elected, they argue, and so she is the one who holds all the responsibility for good behavior.
The obscenities thrown towards the council from Tuesday night’s troublemaker as he was being evicted was undoubtedly cause for removal. The question hotly debated afterwards by attendees outside the chamber was whether the original silencing was justified.
The First Amendment’s provision for free speech is not absolute, of course. Defamatory or obscene language are unlawful, as is speech which incites “imminent lawlessness,” as handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brandenberg v Ohio (1969), in favor of the Ku Klux Klan’s right to march as long as no imminent lawlessness is provoked.
A city council meeting has further restrictions than the street or the park — such a meeting is not an unlimited free-for-all in which anyone can say anything at any time. In Richmond’s Code of Ordinances, Section 2.12.030 entitled “Enforcement of Decorum” states that “any person in the audience who uses loud, boisterous or profane language at a City Council meeting, …or any person who by any other action willfully disturbs or disrupts the proceedings of the Council shall, upon order of the Mayor, be removed from the Council chamber by any police officer present.”
The city council has a job to do — run the City of Richmond — and council meetings are one of the primary vehicles by which to do so. Section 2.12.030 makes provisions for the silencing of speech that is disturbing or disruptive to this function, whether such speech be hateful, loving, or simply irrelevant. Disruption prevents the council from serving its function.
An argument can then be made that direct bullying directed at Vice Mayor Beckles as a person, rather than at her politics, is disruptive, violates Section 2.12.030, and can therefore be legitimately silenced.
So when Beckles states she wants to “figure out how we can legally protect a group of people from verbal violence,” she has a stronger case than those warm to the might of the First Amendment may think. To make a case that verbal bullying is protected, it is insufficient to simply cry foul and point to the Constitution.
The hateful content of the bullying is not the direct cause for its silencing; if it is disruptive, it can be silenced whatever its content. This could legitimately serve as the basis for the new restrictions recommended by Vice Mayor Beckles to the council and voted through 6-1 by the council in last Tuesday’s meeting.
The job of drawing up new restrictions is currently in the hands of City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and City Manager Bill Lindsay. If the restrictions continue to be argued for on the grounds of simple distaste for hate speech and bullying, the Constitutional protection for hate speech will continue to hold sway.
It is possible to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and still accept citizens’ right to participate in local governance and express their views, however distasteful or disagreeable those views are. However, these rights are not absolute, and the council has a right not to be willfully disrupted. Such a right is the strongest basis for bringing the bullying of Jovanka Beckles to an end, and allowing the city council to get on with the business of governing.
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