The Charlottesville City Council continues to face criticism for its new meeting procedures, which were used for the first time Monday.
While nearly all of the recent barbs against the council’s decision have been leveled by constituents, the Rutherford Institute, an Albemarle County-based nonprofit that advocates for civil liberties, waded into the debate this week, calling for the procedures to be changed.
In a five-page letter sent to City Hall on Wednesday, John W. Whitehead, constitutional lawyer and institute president, said the new procedures “violate the letter and spirit” of the First Amendment and impose “obstacles to transparency and citizen engagement.”
“If the city is serious about being a leader in the fight for open government, it must rescind these new rules and replace them with ones that demonstrate a commitment to public participation in the democratic process,” Whitehead said.
On Friday, City Hall released an opinion from City Attorney Craig Brown, who said the new procedures do not violate any constitutional amendments and that a slew of court rulings have defended such practices.
“We can find no compelling reason to recommend any amendments to the council meeting procedures as recently adopted,” Brown said.
“To the contrary, we would be very concerned about the council’s ability to do the people’s business if, as suggested by TRI, the council’s policies only applied to ‘fighting words, true threats, obscenities and incitement of unlawful activities,’ or simply restricted speech ‘that creates a breach of the peace.’”
The controversy began last month after the council approved new meeting procedures that brought some changes to existing council policies. Bob Fenwick was the only councilor to vote against the new rules.
In addition to rules that require stricter adherence to parliamentary procedure and rules for public decorum, the council resolution included procedural changes that altered the public comment sign-up for the first public forum at the start of council meetings.
Citizens who want to speak at the beginning of meetings are now able to sign up via phone or email days before the meeting. As before, only 12 people are allowed speak at that time. If there are more than 12 sign-ups, those who are excluded from speaking by a random lottery system, which is among the new procedures, are placed on a waiting list.
Some of the items regarding public decorum that Whitehead reviewed in his letter already were observed by the council, per a set of rules adopted in 2013.
Drawing on previously existing prohibitions regarding a speaker’s message — be it campaigning for public office, promoting a business or using profanity, for example — the mayor may order a speaker to stop talking and sit down. The mayor also can have a speaker expelled from a meeting, as well as barred from future meetings “for a specified and reasonable period of time.”
Regarding potential expulsions and barring of citizens from attending meetings, Whitehead said the power to “silence speech is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment.”
Additionally, public speakers are not allowed to address any one other than the council — a rule that already was in effect.
Whitehead said there is “no compelling reason justifying” the restriction on whom constituents can address during meetings.
“A speaker might have a particular issue with the action of some city official under the direction of council, or to the statements of some previous speaker,” Whitehead said, “and the most effective means of delivering the message is to direct it to that person.”
In addition to his letter, Whitehead offered a second document that included policy guidelines based on his previous reviews of similar cases regarding municipal and legislative meeting procedures.