California bill would crack down on public meeting disruptions

School boards, city councils and boards of supervisors in California would have clearer authority to remove disruptive attendees from their meetings under a bill introduced in the Legislature on Thursday that aims to protect local officials from harassment and verbal abuse.

Senate Bill 1100 would amend Brown’s Law, a 1953 state law that requires the ability of the public to participate in meetings to increase accessibility and transparency in local government. The law already allows those who serve on legislative bodies to remove people for “voluntarily discontinuing” proceedings, but State Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said it should be updated to include a more precise definition of this behavior. Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) also signed the bill as co-lead author.

The bill would clarify “deliberately interrupting” to mean “intentionally engaging in conduct at a meeting of a legislative body that materially impairs or renders impossible the orderly conduct of the meeting.” The bill would also require officials to warn attendees to “reduce disruptive behavior” before removing them or clearing a room.

Cortese said he decided to draft the bill in response to last year’s verbal attacks on then-Los Gatos mayor Marico Sayoc. Protesters used anti-LGBTQ and anti-vaccine rhetoric at meetings, made personal comments about Sayoc’s son, and then demonstrated outside his home.

“She suffered very aggressive attacks not only on political issues there, but they became ad hominem attacks on her and her family … on issues that were really not at stake before the city council,” said said Cortese.

Similar situations have occurred across California during the COVID-19 pandemic, at meetings of local governments and legislative bodies, as officials make decisions on mask policies and vaccine requirements for people. schools, businesses and restaurants.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board members ended meetings minutes after they began because attendees refused to wear masks. Protesters showed up at the home of an El Dorado County manager last month to oppose mandatory face coverings for children. A San Diego board meeting in August made national headlines after speakers railed against COVID-19 mitigation measures and discussed conspiracy theories.

Participants also used local meetings to lambast public health officials and oppose critical race theory, an academic framework that examines systemic racism in the United States.

California School Boards Assn. Superintendent Vernon M. Billy asked Governor Gavin Newsom in a September letter to help address “dangerous and outrageous conduct committed against school administrators at their board meetings.”

“I watched in horror as school board members were accosted, verbally abused, physically assaulted and threatened with death against themselves and their family members,” Billy wrote.

The debates have focused on increasingly partisan and political issues, deepening divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Cortese said SB 1100 would not prevent participants in public meetings from expressing their opinions, “whether we agree with them or not.”

Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon) said it was important to protect free speech ‘while ensuring respectful dialogue’, but he and other Republicans did not raise concerns immediate concerns about the bill.

“As long as there are safeguards in this bill to ensure it is not abused by local authorities to silence the public, that seems reasonable to me,” Flora said in a statement.

Cortese said he carefully crafted SB 1100 to pass the constitutional rally regarding the 1st Amendment, but acknowledged that the bill may need to be changed as it progresses through the 1st Amendment hearings. committee.

“We will do our best to thread the needle on verbal abuse without trampling on rights,” he said. “I am quite confident that we will be able to find appropriate language that will strengthen public safety protections during these meetings without crossing the line ourselves in terms of the right of the public to petition their government and say what he means.”

Los Angeles Times

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