RICHMOND -- The City Council on Tuesday directed its city attorney and police chief to explore possible limits on First Amendment speech in council meetings, drawing a flurry of criticism from the public that such a move would be unconstitutional.
Responding to the toxic atmosphere that has long pervaded council meetings here, Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles is seeking to craft laws giving the council the power to ban residents for up to six months for using "hate speech" or "fighting words."
"This chamber is so toxic and hostile you can feel it through the television set," Beckles said. "Some people don't come because it's so toxic; that's a violation of their free speech. This is not about me."
The proposal instantly came under fire from some residents, who complained that it would stifle public participation in local governance.
"It's not the speech but the hostile reaction to protected speech that disrupts the meetings," resident Don Gosney said. "Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe the people have a right to be part of the process of governing our community."
The item to explore the free-speech limitations, proposed by Beckles, passed 6-1 despite warnings from the city attorney that banning members of the public would not stand up legally.
Beckles was the focus of a widely broadcast cellphone video exchanging screams with residents during an argument after a council meeting last week. In the video, Beckles, who is of African descent, told her critics they were "bad examples of what it means to be black" and their speech is "why kids are dying," while they fired back, "Why don't you die!"
City Council meetings routinely run past midnight and feature a stew of homophobic, racist and other unruly remarks. Beckles, the city's first openly gay council member, has been the target of dozens of homophobic remarks by a few members of the public.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin called four recesses Tuesday to tamp down disruptions, and ordered police to eject one man, the Rev. Kenneth Davis, for speaking out of order. Earlier this year, the council briefly cleared the entire public from the chamber during a meeting, drawing heavy criticism.
Davis was one of more than 20 speakers who lambasted the council Tuesday for even sniffing around limitations on their free-speech rights. Davis played the audio of his argument with Beckles last week, which featured unsavory language by both parties.
City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller, who penned a seven-page memo on the topic for the council's review, cautioned the council that government agencies always have a high hurdle to clear in trying to limit speech and, especially, banning members of the public from future meetings.
"Our memo specifically addresses that point, banning future attendance, and concludes it is not legally permissible," Goodmiller said.
Goodmiller added that individuals could be removed from meetings for disruptive conduct but not speech content.
But council members were unpersuaded. Councilman Jael Myrick insisted that "hate speech has no place in the public square."
Beckles said, "The answer is no, (the public) can't say what they want. Fighting words are not protected."
Councilman Tom Butt noted a legal precedent in which a man was imprisoned for calling elected officials "fascists" in 1942, and said the council today has the power to limit speech if it chooses to use it.
"I hear a lot worse in this council chamber than fascist," Butt said.
But Goodmiller said hate speech is unequivocally protected and that while "fighting words" can be limited, a high burden is on the government "to prove the likelihood that the person addressed would immediately physically retaliate."
Councilman Corky Boozé, known for his own combative style, was the lone dissenter. He called the attempt to limit speech "ridiculous" and noted that elected officials are routinely subjected to venomous attacks.
"It's our responsibility to take that heat from the public from the podium," Boozé said. "You chose to be elected, so you have to take what the public has to say."
During public comment, McLaughlin pounded her gavel to interrupt one man who was using salty language to address the council.
"Do not call people filth or dirt!" McLaughlin said.
Goodmiller told the council it has the ability to maintain decorum, such as calling people out of order for being off topic or going past their allotted time. But the content of their speech is almost always protected, he said.
"Irrelevant attacks are out of order, but the government has to be really careful about prohibiting those," Goodmiller said. "The citizens have an absolute right to get up and criticize their public officials."
Another resident, Bea Roberson, ripped Beckles for the proposal.
"You think you're the queen, but you're not a judge," Roberson said.
Staff is expected to bring back to the council within a month a proposal balancing free speech rights and the council's rights to run its meetings.