City Seeks Outside Legal Advice on Public Speech Issues
July 1, 2013
(West Palm Beach, FL) – City leaders have asked an outside lawyer to take a look at what has recently become its controversial civility code.
Local attorney Gerald Richman, a Board Certified attorney who last year was named the Florida Bar Certified Lawyer of the Year, has been asked by City Attorney Claudia McKenna to take a look at the Code of Conduct for public meetings and offer feedback on its wording.
The city’s Code of Conduct had recently been the focus of attention following several incidents during City Commission meetings. The City Commission had for a brief time invoked the Code’s provision that allows individuals to be removed from the meeting if they violate the rules.
The ensuing debate has focused on what is considered appropriate public speech during a Commission meeting. Some members of the public have claimed there should be no restrictions at all on what can be said during a meeting, including lobbing accusations of racism and other insults at members of the Commission.
The courts, however, have indicated it is legal to have restrictions regarding public comment.
“A city commission meeting is what is called a limited public forum,” said City Attorney Claudia McKenna. “Figuring out how to deal with the personal attacks [against commissioners] is the challenge.”
“We need to have rules,” said Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell. “Someone has the right to go to a public square and say what they want, yet there are rules of decorum at the United States Supreme Court. We are somewhere in between.”
Mayor Jeri Muoio said the debate is over the whole issue of respect. “The last thing we want to do is keep someone from a Commission meeting. So we want someone with a background in constitutional law to look at the ordinance,” said Muoio.
Mayor Muoio recently convened a round table panel to discuss the issue. Panel members included representatives from various community organizations as well as several of the city’s most vocal public critics who frequently use their public comments to launch personal attacks towards members of the commission.
Mayor Muoio says she plans on holding a second round table session during which she will ask experts in the area of free speech and first amendment law to participate.