The Interim City Attorney has provided “guidance” to the City Council about the scope and limits of the ability of the ceremonial “Mayor” to control public comment at City Council meetings. The bottom line is that it may be permissible for the Mayor to limit or cut-off “disruptive” comments, “profane” comments, and comments respecting matters outside the City Council’s jurisdiction (like the comment by someone last meeting about lobsters in Maine).
Of course, the Mayor also may preclude members of the public from interrupting other speakers, but that is not possible during zoom meetings, because the city staff controls the microphones of public participants.
The Mayor cannot limit or curtail speech based on its subject matter or “content” – other than to the extent it is outside the jurisdiction of the City Council. The Mayor might seek to limit or curtail “personal, slanderous, or profane remarks that are disruptive,” but I suspect that it is extremely difficult to make that sort of judgment without risking crossing the line into seeking to regulate speech based on its subject matter or content.
Finally, the Mayor also may be able to limit or curtail speech that “is too long, is unduly repetitious or involves an extended discussion of irrelevancies.” Given the 3 minute per-speaker time limit established by the City Council, I suspect that the Mayor’s ability to limit or curtail speech on these bases is extremely limited, and again likely subject to challenge that it is a back-door effort to regulate speech based on its content, which is unconstitutional.
Benjamin Franklin wisely observed that “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” For my part, I will go on record as saying that I will publicly and vociferously object to any attempt by the Mayor to cut off, curtail, or disrupt speech protected by the First Amendment – no matter how distasteful some people might find it to be. I have suffered my share of that type of commentary (including by other Councilmembers), and I expect to be the object of future ad hominem attacks. But it is a hallmark of our Constitutional Republic that we do not regulate content-based speech, and it is a small price to pay for our constitutional freedoms that we endure being made to feel uncomfortable from time-to-time by the words of others.
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