Santa Ana’s Claudia Alvarez vs. Freedom of Speech: The Verdict!

Earlier this month I wrote about my concerns related to Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez and her conduct of the public comments portion of the April 5th City Council meeitng. I pointed out that it appeared that Alvarez was playing a bit fast and loose with the Brown Act and the rights of the public to address the council. The Voice of Orange County posed my concern to their expert on these things, Terry Francke of Californian’s Aware.

Q: What are the Brown Act requirements regarding the public testimony period during open meetings? For example, does the act stipulate a set amount of time a person is allowed to comment? Can an official running a public meeting decide who can and who cannot comment? Can speakers be stopped from directing statements or questions to particular member of the body, or from mentioning their names in critical comments?

Here is a portion of Terry’s response:

As for forbidding speakers from addressing or even critically naming particular members of the body such restrictions amount to unconstitutional censorship. Apparently some local agency lawyers believe that unless the Brown Act expressly requires certain speech to be accommodated, it can be prohibited. 

In short, when the government has expressly invited comment to its officials at an open meeting of a public agency, it cannot censor any comment, however unfair or damaging, that relates to the official activities of the agency, its officers or other personnel.

Claudia Alvarez

You can read Terry’s entire response here.

So Ladies and Gentelmen, have at it. Feel free to talk to your elected representatives at their public meetings. Feel free to reference their actions and call them out by name. They can run, but they can’t hide from your right to free speech. When it comes to public comment, City Hall is the one place where everyone CAN know their names.

Speak now, and never hold your peace.

Just in case you don’t remember, below is the video of the conduct by Mayor Pro Tem Alvarez I’m talking about.

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  8 comments for “Santa Ana’s Claudia Alvarez vs. Freedom of Speech: The Verdict!

  1. Repulsed
    April 27, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Help me out here Chris,
    I understand the statement below to say we CAN’T name individuals in open session

    Thus, when the Act in Government Code Section 54954.3 (c) states, “The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body” that list leaves any other kind of complaint or criticism, for example comments made to or about an individual member, fair game for censorship.

    • April 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

      Good Question, Terry was saying that because some city attorneys only look at the surface of the law and not the case law backing it up, they seem to believe that the listing in the law “leaves any other kind of complaint or criticism, for example comments made to or about an individual member, fair game for censorship.”

      He goes on to point out that the court has determined that that perception is incorrect.

      Your speech cannot be impeeded by the City Council during public comment. As a general rule, the most they can do is limit your time to speak on a particular issue.

  2. just...asking?
    April 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Repulsed is correct!

    Comments during open comment period are directed to the governing agency. While personal attacks are quite common, the “chair” of the meeting has wide discretion to re-direct the speaker to address the entire board and not a select individual or staff member. For example its ok to report issues to the board, but not ok to yell at the Public Works Director and ask him why he didn’t fix the pothole on your street. Direct dialog invites debate which is against the Brown Act. Staff can respond to the Board, offer clarification, commit to research, or agendize for future Board discussion.

    The Chair has the authority to stop a speaker who does not follow these guidelines. This point is included in event the most basic Brown Act training sessions.

    All that said, Alvarez went over the line in showing favoritism to one side of the argument. Rules established can be altered by the Chair, but then must be applied equally to all parties, event those you don’t agree with.

    • Dan Chmielewski
      April 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm

      In Irvine, city council members can’t interrupt. They sit there and listen to residents expound for their 3 minutes of alloted time. You can say what you want.

  3. April 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Just Asking,

    I guess I assumed incorrectly that our readers would click through to Terry’s complete response at Voice of OC. Since you did not do so, I will insert a more comprehensive excerpt of his answer.

    Case law holds that those who wander off topic, comment repetitively or exceed standard time limits can be interrupted and prevented from speaking further. But all such rules must be applied evenhandedly and not employed to suppress a particular viewpoint. As for forbidding speakers from addressing or even critically naming particular members of the body such restrictions amount to unconstitutional censorship.

    Apparently some local agency lawyers believe that unless the Brown Act expressly requires certain speech to be accommodated, it can be prohibited.

    A federal district court rejected that notion more than a decade ago, dealing with a school board’s refusal to allow a parent to complain in open session about the lack of responsiveness of several named school administrators-and its insistence that any such complaints be voiced only in closed session.

    The federal court cited California’s own fundamental law, whose free speech protections are in this context even more robust than those of the First Amendment. “Under the California Constitution, District’s Board may not censor speech by prohibiting citizens from speaking, even if their speech is, or may be, defamatory,” the court concluded, especially when the context is a meeting governed by the Brown Act, whose public comment accommodation rules have created a designated forum for speech. Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School District, 936 F.Supp. 719 (1996).

    In short, when the government has expressly invited comment to its officials at an open meeting of a public agency, it cannot censor any comment, however unfair or damaging, that relates to the official activities of the agency, its officers or other personnel.

    – TERRY FRANCKE

    While the chair may ask the comments be directed through the chair, naming of individual council members, or staff members, cannot be prohibited. The first amendment grants us the right to address our grievances to our elected officials. That right cannot be abridged.

  4. junior
    April 27, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    What the hell do some people not understand about “Freedom of Speech” – ??

    IF Claudia can’t handle the heat get out of the f**king kitchen!

    She is one mean b**ch – Santa Ana’s own Leona Helmsley – our Queen of Mean.

  5. junior
    April 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Where are Santa Ana’s “Kings of Bullshit Mountain” to defend Claudia?

  6. Repulsed
    April 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the clarification

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