The ACLU of Southern California is battling a Los Angeles proposal it argues would criminalize speech activity such as taking too much time to speak during public comment period at Police Commission meetings. In that example, the speaker could be arrested and even jailed for up to six months.
The civil liberties group is circulating a letter that citizens can send to City Council members to express opposition to the proposed ordinance. But ACLU staff attorney Melanie Penny Ochoa says it's likely the organization will sue if the council enacts it.
The proposal, submitted by council president Herb Wesson, would elevate the violation of quotidian rules at parks, libraries and other city facilities to misdemeanor trespassing crimes that could provoke arrest, jail and prosecution. The idea is being considered by the council's Public Safety Committee.
Experts say the elevation of facilities rules violations to possible misdemeanors would mean that speaking off-topic at a community meeting or even taking more than the allotted time on a library computer could end in arrest. Opponents of the motion believe it's aimed at stifling raucous demonstrations and outbursts at Police Commission meetings and other city gatherings where Black Lives Matter members have shouted at elected and appointed officials to express dismay over police shootings of unarmed black men.
"I think this specifically targets Black Lives Matter," says longtime groupo activist Melina Abdullah.
She was once arrested at a Police Commission meeting for speaking longer than the time period allotted to her by the body. But charges were not filed, she says, because she broke no law. Under the Wesson proposal, her arrest could have resulted in charges and time behind bars for speaking her mind to officials working on the taxpayers' dime.
The organization has been tough on Mayor Eric Garcetti — shadowing him at events and calling for the ouster of the police chief, Charlie Beck, who essentially serves at the mayor's pleasure. Abdullah believes the mayor has "fingerprints all over this" proposal. "I'm not quite sure why Eric Garcetti is taking our protests so personally," she says. "As an elected official it's his job to listen to the people."
Political commentator Jasmyne Cannick sees the motion as a move to silence people who disagree with City Hall policies. "Nothing says 'stay away' like the very real possibility of getting arrested for speaking off-topic or too long," she says.
"They need to be figuring out how to make these meetings more accessible so that even more people — including the ones whose opinions they don’t like — can attend," she says. "They sure are doing everything in their power, with the help of the mayor and city attorney, to make sure that people don’t engage."
For the last few years, the city has been grappling with how to maintain decorum during public meetings, particularly those of the Police Commission, which often draw community anger and outbursts. In 2015, the commission vowed to kick out anyone who made "personal, impertinent or profane remarks," but it thought the better of it after a backlash ensued.
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This latest City Hall proposal "would criminalize trivial conduct," Ochoa of the ACLU says. "Violation of the rules of decorum should not result in criminal penalties," she says.
The civil liberties group also is unhappy with a motion from Councilman Mitch Englander that would limit the kinds of signs and materials used during street demonstrations. He argues many are unsafe or could be weaponized. Ochoa says that many of the suggested items are allowed on the street any day of the week and should be allowed at demonstrations. "This goes to a person's ability to express their views," she says.
"That's our biggest concern," she says, "that these are attempts to strip away rights from individuals."
Englander said via email that he stands by his motion. "Threats of litigation will never deter our efforts to protect public safety," he said.