San Francisco Chronicle

ACLU calls Vallejo council policy a threat to free speech

- By Andres Picon

The ACLU of Northern California issued a strongly worded letter to Vallejo officials Friday, urging the City Council to rescind a recently implemente­d policy that allows council members to silence commenters in public meetings who make personal attacks on city officials.

“The policy is unconstitu­tional, and unfit for a democracy,” the nonprofit said in a tweet.

The letter comes one day after Mayor Robert McConnell issued a statement regarding the city’s search for a new city manager in which he asked that community members “focus on attacking the idea, project, or result instead of attacking the individual.”

Vallejo residents have said that it is common for community members to fiercely attack city officials in the public comment portion of public meetings. Interim City Manager Anne Cardwell

told the Vallejo Times-Herald after she submitted her resignatio­n letter in August that while she enjoyed many parts of the job, it has been challengin­g because of vocal critics who have at times made false, negative and demoralizi­ng statements about city employees. Her last day on the job is Oct. 7.

In a special meeting Aug. 31, ahead of public comments, McConnell explained the speaking rules, including what he called an “addition” stating that “speakers may not make personal attacks on council members, staff or members of the public, or make comments which are slanderous, or which may invade an individual’s privacy.” If a commenter does any of the above, a city councilor can call for a point of order and the speaker can be muted, according to the meeting presentati­on.

“This policy threatens to suppress the voices of community members, and this runs afoul of First Amendment principles, as well as the California Constituti­on and the Ralph M. Brown Act” open meeting law, the ACLU’s letter reads. “The council’s new policy prohibitin­g critical comments unlawfully penalizes protected speech.”

The ACLU said the City Council appeared to adopt the policy after an Aug. 24 meeting in which at least one community member criticized several city officials, including Cardwell, Interim Assistant City Manager Gillian Hayes and Police Chief Shawny Williams.

“The policy ‘engenders discussion artificial­ly geared toward praising (and maintainin­g) the status quo, thereby foreclosin­g meaningful public dialogue and, ultimately, dynamic political change,’ ” the ACLU said, quoting a court’s decision in a 1997 San Diego County case challengin­g a Vista school district policy that allowed meeting commenters to be muted.

City officials could not immediatel­y be reached for comment.

The ACLU urged the council to repeal the policy before or during its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

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