NORTH ADAMS -- The city solicitor and the American Civil Liberties Union are urging the City Council to reject a proposed amendment to the City Council's Rules of Order which would ban anyone attending a council meeting from having a sign, electronic device or article of clothing that could display a graphic or lettered message.
However, City Solicitor John DeRosa issued an opinion Monday, stating that while the proposed amendment is "constitutionally infirm," that "a more narrowly drawn amendment, however, would be constitutionally permissible so long as it only excludes from the Council Chambers all signs, placards, banners or like items."
He also added, "Although there is no constitutional right for the public to address a legislative body, the City Council is a ‘limited public forum' because it invites members of the public to speak at its meetings and is required to open its meetings to the public under the Open Meeting Law. That said, the Council has the right to regulate its meetings so that it may conduct the public's business in an orderly fashion These restrictions, however, must be content-neutral because the Council cannot prohibit visitors from simply expressing their viewpoint on an agenda item, unless those visitors become disruptive in doing so."
DeRosa's opinion will be the focus of Wednesday night's General Governance Committee. The committee, which previously met on the amendment in December, is charged
Council President Michael Bloom, who submitted the amendment, said he agrees with the DeRosa's opinion and hopes to see the General Governance Committee make a recommendation that includes language for a rule banning signs, banners and placards.
"I think what the city solicitor put out sounds reasonable," Bloom said Monday. "When I wrote the amendment, I did it in a broad way, as my intention was to resolve any unforeseen issues that could arise in the future."
He added, "I've been doing this a long time, about 24 years now, and this is may be one of the most disruptive environments the City Council has had to work in. There is an obvious distrust of government, with a certain group of people believing that this administration and this City Council have some agenda against the public. That belief turns into disruption, with non-stop personal attacks and under-the-breath remarks that go on at every meeting."
Within his opinion, DeRosa states the amendment, as proposed, "cast too wide a net." He also wrote that wearing a T-shirt, even one with a vulgar message, is allowed under state and federal laws, but also argues that Council Rule 12 would allow the council to take action against someone wearing an article of clothing that contains defamatory statements or personal attacks.
"Neither the Federal Constitution nor the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights protects the right of the public to make defamatory statements about private individuals or public officials," DeRosa wrote.
A letter from the ACLU, written by attorney William C. Newman, states the amendment should be rejected because it would limit freedom of expression. The letter address a ban on signs, placards or banners.
"Banning clothing or objects that display messages in a public place unduly burdens expressive rights without a countervailing important governmental message being served," Newman wrote.
Bloom first proposed the amendment, known as Council Rule 10A, at the council's Nov. 27 meeting, which coincided with the return of Robert Cardimino to City Hall. Cardimino had previously had a "no trespass" order issued against him.
"My intention is to bring order back to our council meetings," Bloom said. "There's always an undercurrent of local people who are dissatisfied with government. It happens at all levels. However, I think that people forget that the City Council is just trying to make things better for the community and to make North Adams a more attractive place."
Cardimino, who also received a copy of the ACLU's letter, said Monday that he isn't trying to be disruptive during council meetings.
"We just want to have our say," he said. "All we're asking is to be heard. We're going to call them out on issues. Sure [the councilors] may get embarrassed, and sure they may not like what we have to say, but that's not a disruption."
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