Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

ACLU Criticizes Walla Walla City Council’s Broad Comment Policy

On Oct. 25, 2023, Walla Walla City Council unanimously approved a new public comment policy, which caused concern to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), due to the negative potential impacts that this policy could have on freedom of speech. 

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin broke the news of the letter from the ACLU to the city council in a Dec. 19 article, and included a full copy of the letter

The letter cites concerns of viewpoint discrimination, raising concerns about the “subjective terms” in the policy as well as criticizing the policy as “impermissibly broad.”

The ACLU believes that negative impressions towards the controversial comments made during council meetings are not necessarily enough to apply speech restrictions with respect to democracy.

The policy allows the presiding officer over a public meeting — for example the mayor — to bar individuals that make “irrelevant, personal, impertinent, overly redundant, vulgar or slanderous remarks” from making further comments during the meeting.

The policy was amended during a Nov. 15 meeting to clarify that a comment that meets the above criteria and “disrupts, disturbs or otherwise renders orderly conduct of the meeting unfeasible” will be barred.

The public comment policy changes were made due to the occurrence of some hateful, racist and disruptive comments during the city council meetings in College Place and across the state

Elizabeth Chamberlain, Walla Walla’s City Manager, explained that the new comment policy is applicable when public meetings are disrupted. 

“The City Council adopted their public comment policy and is applied when a speaker actually disrupts, disturbs or otherwise renders orderly conduct of the public meeting unfeasible,” Chamberlain said. “A speaker is not stopped for speaking based on the content of the speech but if the speaker disrupts, disturbs or otherwise renders orderly conduct of the public meeting unfeasible. The Mayor, as the person responsible for running the city council meeting, is charged with determining if the speaker is disrupting the meeting.”

Chamberlain highlighted the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California’s affirmation of a comparable policy last year in the case Project for Open Gov’t v. County of San Diego. 

“The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard oral arguments in the appeal from that District Court decision. Our City Attorney will review the City Council’s policy again after the 9th Circuit issues its decision in Project for Open Gov’t,” Chamberlain said.

Sagiv Galai is a legal fellow at the ACLU of Washington State. He talked about the intention and purpose behind sending the letter to members of Walla Walla’s City Council. 

“[The intention was to request the city council to] revise the policy in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment,” Galai said. “They used a ten-pound hammer, where they should’ve used a thin surgical knife.”

Galai is concerned about how the council could wield this metaphorical hammer, fearing that the City’s use of subjective terms like impertinent, irrelevant and overly redundant as examples of disruptive speech will allow the City to shut down speech they don’t like, and thus infringe on free speech. 

Galai emphasized that the municipal politics are a foundational aspect of democracy in the United States: the city is often the first, if not the only, level of government people engage with on a regular basis. As such, it is exceedingly important that this forum of civic engagement is an environment where people know they can raise their significant concerns on controversial topics, without fear of speech restrictions.

“One of the most fundamental protections that we have under the First Amendment is the powerful idea that the government is not allowed to pick and choose what kind of speech it likes and what type of speech it doesn’t like. In constitutional law, we refer to this concept as viewpoint discrimination,” Galai said. 

Galai spoke more about the protective role the First Amendment plays in exchanges between people and their governments.

Our constitutional protections under the First Amendment guarantee people the right to challenge the ideas of government officials and, in doing so, engage in speech that these officials may subjectively deem controversial or offensive,” Galai said. 

Galai added that Walla Walla has the opportunity to establish an effective public comment policy that strikes the right balance between protecting free speech and preventing disruptions. This possibility could position Walla Walla as a potential exemplar in navigating the delicate balance between ensuring orderly council meetings and the duty to create and maintain forums of civic engagement that allow for diverse perspectives in line with the First Amendment.

The Wire contacted all members of the Walla Walla City Council; none responded to requests for comment prior to publication. 

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