A Costa Mesa City Council meeting is seen in May 2011. A federal appeals court… (Los Angeles Times )
A federal appeals court has ruled that Costa Mesa's ban on "insolent" behavior at City Council meetings is an unconstitutional violation of speakers' 1st Amendment rights. That's a smart decision. The three judge panel voted 2 to 1 to let the rest of the ordinance stand — banning "disorderly" and "disruptive" behavior — as long as the offending word "insolent" was struck from it. (The dissenting judge thought the entire ordinance should be thrown out.)
Anyone who has spent any time at a city council meeting — whether as observer or participant — knows how boisterous, noisy and emotional the audience and the speakers can be. It was one such speaker, Benito Acosta, a passionate advocate for immigration rights whose refusal to leave the podium at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting in 2006 got him physically removed and handcuffed, who brought the suit challenging the city ordinance as an infringement on free speech.
In council chambers in Los Angeles and beyond, insolence, impertinence and contempt are often on display. And though that may be obnoxious to some members of the council and the audience, it cannot be, literally, insufferable. This country was founded on insolence, and it must be tolerated in a public forum. The key question, as the court noted, is not whether a certain behavior is rude but whether it is disruptive.
The line can be a fuzzy one. The language of the Los Angeles City Council's rules of decorum, for instance, echoes much of the Costa Mesa ordinance, but there are crucial distinctions. People attending council meetings here are forbidden to engage in insolent behavior that disrupts or impedes the proceedings. But insolent behavior, on its face, is not deemed disruptive. A subtle difference, but a significant one.
It's reasonable to eject people from a council meeting if they disrupt it or impede it, whether by defiantly ignoring set time limits for public comment or instigating a brawl or shouting others down. But offensive speech alone cannot justify kicking someone out of a public meeting.