WeHo Council Decorum Rules are No Violation of Free Speech Rights

First Amendment
First Amendment
The West Hollywood City Council last week passed a resolution establishing some basic rules of decorum for those speaking at and attending council meetings. Not surprisingly, the new rules prompted an online flurry of “WTF” exclamations and cries of censorship.

The new rules bar ad hominem attacks, profanity and noise or actions that are likely to disrupt the council meeting. They require speakers to stay on topic. And they require attendees to wear shoes and a shirt (no mention of pants, although the appearance at the last council meeting of a speaker in a Speedo may prompt the addition of that requirement). All of that is pretty much the same standard of conduct that you’d expect of a customer at a 7-Eleven convenience store.

The new rules were enacted “to ensure that people actually get to say what they want at council meetings and commission meetings,” explained Mayor Abbe Land. “We want to make sure that people feel comfortable when they express their opinion and will not be threatened and be talked at by other folks. It is really important that we treat each other with respect and that you can say anything that you want.”

Land’s explanation sounds perfectly reasonable. The rules of decorum aren’t a violation of the First Amendment, as some allege, because they don’t ban anyone from expressing opinions about the subject at hand. They just regulate how those opinions are expressed. Anyone with even basic awareness of the Constitution should know that the Supreme Court famously ruled that one can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre and be protected by the First Amendment. Some forms of expression aren’t protected in some situations, especially when the manner blocks other people from expressing their opinions.

So why the declarations of censorship? Why the outburst of online profanity? And why can’t folks discuss and debate civic issues without getting downright nasty and mean?

Maybe it’s because being civil and staying on the point requires thought and manners. Manners are what most of us were taught as children and seem to lose touch with as we age. If one listens to political discussion shows on television and reads web comments, it’s clear that the ability to think and reason has not widely taught, and it doesn’t come naturally.

As someone who personally approves all the comments posted on WEHOville.com, I wish the council rules came in the form of a digital app that was activated instantly every time a commenter on our site tried to use a profane word, insult the intelligence of a fellow commenter or allude to some sort of irrelevant dirty activity on the part of a person with whom he or she disagreed.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google is working on such a thing. But in the meantime folks, stop and think about what you want to say. Don’t censor yourself, by which I mean you shouldn’t refrain from expressing your opinion. But, whether it’s at a council meeting or on WEHOville.com, do take time to frame your comments and opinions in a polite and logical way, relevant to the subject under discussion and without attacks on your fellow commenters. In other words, just be nice.


5 Comments
  1. Does anyone remember the spirited city council meetings in the early years of city hood in the 1980’s where the Sheriff’s dept would have to removed residents?

  2. I don’t how see how speaking civilly is a violation of anything except rudeness. And I don’t think the CC can go outside the generally accepted rules of Parliamentary procedure – which they probably have clue about, but even a short reading of Robert’s Rules of Order may clear up the matter for this situation. The CC meetings are public and the public has the right to speak their mind and concerns and it can be done without “ad hominem” attacks (oh, I can just see them chuckling over that one myself). None of us are career diplomats but none of CC are career diplomats either. So if decorum is to be followed – then it should occur on both sides of the dais. That means our CC needs to ramp down their snarky comments as well and tend to the business of the moment.

  3. Why not have armed guards stand next to a speaker in case someone gets “out of line” and usher the offending citizen out the building and across the street into a holding room. That was we can ensure that the council meetings are speedy and that no one’s feelings are hurt (except the detained community member).

  4. Be prepared for the Council to abuse “ad hominem attacks”. This is a dangerous grey area. I would bet you half of the council cannot properly define or separate true violations.

    “I think you all are doing a terrible job right now with the parks, and some of you are corrupt.” Council Member: I’m sorry that violates our ad hominem clause.

    Get ready..

  5. Hank, I suspect decorum is suspect these days. In days of yore one’s parents or a schoolteacher or some form of Emily Post taught most of us how to behave civilly in public. Even the most loathsome comments can be delivered avoiding profanity or provocation. It is simply a matter of (wait for it) good manners – which, like thank you notes, saying excuse me and not cutting the line have gone the way of all flesh. You don’t have to be a career diplomat either. Delivering an opinion or idea to a government council should include respect, brevity and clothing. Even if you disagree with the council or dislike any or all of its members. Reciting the Gettysburg Address, speaking and dressing like a fool, is memorable not for the speech – but for the fool who gives it. There is no censorship in grace or good manners. That it should have to be codified is what I find amazing.

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