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Freedom's Test, or Just a Pest?

Gadflies deemed out of order are arrested or ejected from some public meetings. The 1st Amendment and decorum are at odds.

September 24, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

After greeting the San Bernardino County supervisors with a mock Nazi salute, Jeff Wright, a homeless Air Force veteran, stepped to the public microphone to complain about being arrested at a regional transportation meeting a few months earlier.

Board Chairman Dennis Hansberger told him to stay on the topic under discussion, which was the salaries of county attorneys. Wright then threatened to seal the supervisor's mouth with duct tape, which he had brought with him.

Hansberger responded by ordering sheriff's deputies to eject Wright, who was led out of the building in handcuffs, screaming about police brutality.

It was nothing new -- for Wright or for the board of supervisors.

The March incident was among the more than 100 arrests or ejections deputies have carried out at meetings of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors since 1989, according to an unofficial tally by one local activist.

Although law enforcement officials say they cannot confirm the exact number, they put the tally in the dozens.

In 2000, reports of those arrests earned the Board of Supervisors the "Black Hole" award, a dubious distinction given by the California First Amendment Coalition to public agencies and officials that the group says show disregard for open government and 1st Amendment rights.

In the past year, the pace of arrests and removals at San Bernardino County supervisors' meetings has increased to about one per month, with most speakers being removed for failing to stick to the agenda and then refusing to surrender the lectern.

"I haven't heard of anybody nearly as restrictive as San Bernardino County," said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.

Are the arrests and ejections an example of government repression against citizens who dare to question their elected leaders? Or are these incidents simply a testament to the number of fanatical and belligerent speakers in San Bernardino who are drawn to the weekly board meetings? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Francke and other civil rights experts warn that, regardless of the speakers' temperament, the arrests stifle free speech and discourage citizens from bringing grievances before their elected officials.

"If you are a member of the Board of Supervisors, you have to be willing to listen to your constituents and give them some leeway to say what they want to say," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. "Even if they are pests, they shouldn't be arrested."

But supervisors and law enforcement officials say most of the people arrested or removed intentionally try to disrupt the meetings with their outbursts and long-winded diatribes.

Hansberger said he respects the public's right of free speech but described some of the meeting regulars as "people who bring their own anger to the only forum where they can speak."

The arrests and removals in San Bernardino County have involved about a dozen regulars, some of whom are known to pepper the board with nonsensical ravings. They get the boot so often that the dozens of binder-toting bureaucrats who regularly attend the meetings hardly raise an eyebrow.

But government officials throughout the country have learned that efforts to silence persistent gadflies can backfire.

In Middletown, Conn., retired shoe store owner Sidney Libby had been arrested more than 25 times, mostly on disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing charges. During council meetings, he often accused city leaders of being puppets of a shadow government run by the CIA, the mob and the state of Israel. But before he died two years ago, Libby won a number of open meeting complaints that he had filed with a state ethics panel.

In Louisiana, the state attorney general's office came to the defense of Stanford Caillouet, a caustic gadfly in St. Charles Parish who was indefinitely banned from council sessions after he called the chairman "Little Hitler" six years ago. The action caused such a furor among free-speech advocates that the council was ultimately pressured by the attorney general to open its doors to Caillouet, a retired industrial worker.

In Ventura, gadfly Carroll Dean Williams turned the tables on city leaders in the early 1990s. Denied an opportunity to speak at a council meeting, he convinced the chief of police to order an officer to arrest then-Mayor Richard Francis -- who was quickly released, and never prosecuted. The council responded by adopting strict limits on testimony from the public.

Advocates of the 1st Amendment note that several other cities and counties throughout Southern California have recently imposed tight restrictions on speakers.

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