BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Civil rights groups continue to call on the Bakersfield City Council to rescind what they’re calling unlawful restrictions on public participation. It comes after the city put rules in place following a rowdy meeting over the summer. Organizations claim these restrictions violate First Amendment rights.
The letter sent to the city by civil rights organizations ordered the city to take action by October 1st, but the city says the rules are still in place and the council hasn’t had any problems.
“You have the opportunity to make a decision that actually benefits those who don’t look like you, who do not come from the privilege backgrounds that you come from and have the same privileges that you have so when we ask you to redirect funding when we ask you to defund the police what we’re really saying is dare to see a world where black and brown people are treated fairly and equitably, that is it," said an audience member during public comment at the June 16 meeting.
At a June 16th Bakersfield City Council meeting, audience members yelled in disagreement about the budget and how funding is allocated. While some spoke their frustrations calmly, others cursed at the council during public comment.
“See what your community wants. What the people actually want. Not what you’re people want, the actual people," said another audience member during public comment at the meeting.
Mayor Karen Goh called on the audience to calm down but after repeated attempts: “It’s over there’s no more public speaking," said City Attorney Virginia Gennaro.
“No, no, no, no,” screamed the audience.
“This is your third warning and we need to clear the chambers at this point,” said Mayor Goh.
The council later established rules for conduct inside the chambers starting on July 14th, 2021.
“Engaging in conduct that disrupts the meeting or that incites disruption including outbursts or interruptions from the audience using amplified sound or shouting or resorting to threatening or profane comments that incite disruption will not be tolerated. Continued disruption or harassment by any individual may be enforced as a misdemeanor in violation of penal code sections 403, 415, 217.1 or any other applicable law,” Mayor Goh said during the July 14 meeting.
Emma De La Rosa with Leadership Counsel says she believes the rules violate someone’s First Amendment rights.
“You know as elected officials their responsibility is to hear input from the people regardless of whether or not they like it and they really cannot sidestep this obligation just because they don’t want to hear it,” Emma De La Rosa said.
Under the Brown Act, the council is able to place reasonable restrictions and limit the total amount of time allowed for public comment on particular issues for each speaker. However, the agency cannot, “prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.”
Other advocates like Monica Price with the First Amendment Coalition said rules like this in a public space are not common. She also says she believes it threatens the public’s right to address the city council.
“I haven’t seen rules that tell people not to be repetitive. Rules that say the speaker will be responsible if someone else disrupts the meeting as a result of what they’ve said. Like how can you know if what you’re saying is going to cause someone else in the audience to cheer? You know maybe someone’s having a hard time and they’re getting nervous or emotional and someone in the audience can’t cheer them on, or that’s something that can get you kicked out of the meeting,” Monica Price said.
The city did not respond to the letter and the rules remain in place. De La Rosa says advocates will continue to attend meetings to make their voices heard.
“We are willing to collaborate and work with the city to ensure that this does not limit folks from giving a comment or does not violate their freedom of expression and speech so we’re hoping there’s still some opportunity there to rescind this ordinance, I’m sorry, this resolution,” De La Rosa said.
23ABC reached out to council members for comment but did not receive a response. However, the city says it has not noticed a change in attendance or has had issues with decorum during meetings since the rules were implemented.