Thursday, June 1, 2006
Motion to Ban ‘Racist and Abusive’ Language Advances
Law Professor Says Proposed Restrictions at Council Meetings May Be Constitutional
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Los Angeles City Council yesterday gave preliminary approval to a motion to ban “racist and abusive” language during the council’s public comment periods.
The motion now heads to the council’s Rules and Elections Committee, Councilman Bernard Parks, who sponsored the measure, said in a release.
“I’m definitely an advocate of First Amendment rights,” Parks said. “But, there is never an excuse for intentionally offending people in a way the may incite violence.”
Parks, who did not return a MetNews phone call, may be right, UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh said.
Volokh explained that any restriction must be viewpoint neutral to be constitutional. A restriction on insulting language or vulgarities would probably be constitutional, he said, but a restriction on racist comments would not be, because it would not be viewpoint neutral.
However, he explained, a rule prohibiting all epithets, including sexist, racial and other types, would probably pass muster. The council can require “civil discussions,” he said.
The motion follows a recent council meeting where a member of the audience repeatedly used “the N word,” as Parks described it in the release, which he said not only insulted members of the audience and council, but was also aired on L.A. City View Channel 35, which broadcasts council meetings.
Park’s motion states that the council “should at the very least implement the same rules of decency and the same standards for appropriate speech as are enforced by the television broadcasting industry and the Federal Communications Commission.”
Since Channel 35 is a public station, it is not governed by FCC rules, Parks noted.
“[T]he rights of free speech are not absolute at any time or under any circumstance,” he argued. “Speech that is lewd and obscene, profane, libelous, insulting or can be described as ‘fighting words’ as defined in +Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire+ are not safeguarded by the Constitution.”
“Also, communication which includes epithets or personal abuse is not considered proper communication and is not safeguarded by the Constitution,” he added.
The 1942 case referred to by Parks involved a Jehovah’s Witness who told a New Hampshire town marshal who was attempting to prevent him from preaching: “You are a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist” and was arrested for “offensive conduct.” The scope of the decision has been narrowed substantially in subsequent rulings.
In Lewis v. City of New Orleans, a 1972 case, for example, a New Orleans ordinance that made it a crime to “curse ... or to use opprobrious language toward an on-duty police officer” was struck down on the ground that the use of the phrase “opprobrious” made the ordinance overbroad.
Parks’ motion suggests that the council consider such measures as a delayed broadcast to allow the deletion of offensive language, an automatic shut-off of the microphone, forfeiture of the speaker’s remaining time, and sanctions for repeat offenders.
“The racist and abusive language must stop now,” the motion says.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company