Cop Commission Thinks Twice About Controversial Speech Crackdown

Protesters outside LAPD headquarters
Protesters outside LAPD headquarters
File photo by Craig Dietrich/Flickr

Uproar over an L.A. Police Commission proposal to kick out and possibly arrest those who make "personal, impertinent or profane remarks" at its police headquarters public meetings appears to have inspired the body to table the idea until Sept. 15.

The ACLU of Southern California was particularly unhappy with the speech proposal, suggesting in a letter to the commission that the rules could be unconstitutional.

The would-be policy change is a clear response to boisterous Black Lives Matter protests at meetings of the politically appointed body, which ultimately oversees the Los Angeles Police Department. Such demonstrations have inspired the commission to temporarily shut down proceedings twice.

Black Lives Matter is unhappy with the official response to the August 2014 shooting of unarmed African-American Ezell Ford. The commission, in fact, found that officers violated policy. But Chief Charlie Beck has yet to weigh in with possible punishment or sanctions.

ACLU staff attorney Catherine A. Wagner fired off a letter to the commission Sunday urging the body to revise its rules proposal.

She cited a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling from 2010 that says "government officials in America occasionally must tolerate offensive or irritating speech."

"Mere speech ... does not constitute an actual disruption simply because some may have been offended by the words used or found the message disrespectful," Wagner wrote. "The board cannot require that public speakers or members of the public who attend commission meetings be courteous, respectful, polite, or even that they refrain from using accusatory, inflammatory, offensive or insulting language."

Black Lives Matter organizer Melina Abdullah called the commission proposal "one of the most blatant efforts to silence an engaged public in recent memory."

She said it represents "a direct attack on Black Lives Matter and the black public."

A judge twice denied "stay away" orders that would have sought to keep certain Black Lives Matter demonstrators from Mayor Eric Garcetti and Chief Beck. BLM protesters nonetheless have been arrested at official city events featuring both men.

The commission's rules change also would prohibit "loud, threatening or abusive language, whistling, stamping feet or other acts which cause a disruption" as well as signs, posters and banners that "disrupt" meetings.

The proposal would allow police to regulate the alleged disrupters. Those who disagree with the speech impediments and resist ejection could be arrested.

The ACLU argues that the commission cannot define "disruption" to suit its needs. It cites case law that says prohibited disruptive behavior must be nearly physically disruptive. "It does not mean constructive disruption, technical disruption, virtual disruption, nunc pro tunc disruption, or imaginary disruption," the Ninth Circuit stated.

In a statement, the ACLU today expressed hope that the commission would temper the proposal:

The ACLU of Southern California is gratified that the Commission is taking these concerns seriously — there is no circumstance where individuals’ fundamental right to free speech and expression is more vital than in addressing public officials regarding issues of public concern.

As the Commission and the Los Angeles City Attorney consider changes to the proposed policy, we urge them to go beyond minor wordsmithing and address the broader concern that members of the public will understand the policy to mean that they may be ejected from meetings for making comments that are deemed “impertinent” or “offensive,” and will self­-censor as a result. Any policy adopted by the Commission should be clear that individuals will not be subjected to enforcement measures based solely on the content of their remarks.

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