The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting chambers. File photo.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting chambers. File photo.

A California bill that would allow public officials to remove disruptive individuals from meetings is poised to become law after gaining bipartisan support.

State Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymember Evan Low introduced a bill earlier this year to update and strengthen the 69-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. The state legislators say SB 1100 would help address the increase in hostility, bullying and harassment at public meetings. The bill heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has until October to sign it into law.

The open meeting law governs conduct at meetings of legislative bodies, but many aspects—including when public officials can remove a person—are too vague, lawmakers said. The Brown Act currently allows officials to remove a person in the case of “willful disruption,” but doesn’t offer clarity or guidance on what that phrase means.

“This is a good step in the right direction in terms of bringing clarity, especially to some of the smaller jurisdictions, to figure out how to handle (disruptions) at public meetings,” Cortese told San José Spotlight, adding he has seen violence and threats escalated at meetings since at least 2015.

The update focuses on establishing a procedure for warning individuals who willfully interrupt a meeting and keep it from continuing. Officials can then remove them if they persist, according to the bill. Cortese said the change in law doesn’t regulate the content of speech, which would be a violation of First Amendment rights.

“This bill is not targeting speech, it’s only targeting when speech is actually being used to drown out the viewpoints of others,” Cortese said. “At that point, (if) you can’t have a meeting and the public process couldn’t go on, then the rest of the Brown Act would be moot.”

Public disruptions

Cortese and Low proposed the bill after local officials in Los Gatos faced shouting and personal attacks in 2021. At several meetings last year, protesters interrupted officials to speak out against the Black Lives Matter movement, and one also lodged personal attacks against then Mayor Marico Sayoc’s son for his sexual orientation. When the Los Gatos Town Council moved its meetings online after the attacks, protesters picketed the homes of Sayoc and then Vice Mayor Rob Rennie.

Low said disruptions—and in some cases, violence—at public meetings have especially increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we introduced this bill, other legislators and members of the public also shared similar experiences in their local communities as well,” Low told San José Spotlight. “This is not singularly isolated to just the town of Los Gatos—rather, this is a wider issue.”

Disruptions have led to more security guards and delayed public meetings across the state. A handful of other incidents in the South Bay have prompted local leaders to take drastic measures against unruly public speakers. Last year a frequent commenter at VTA board meetings was sentenced to one year’s probation for making threats at a meeting.

Low said the issue also deters some people from running for office or speaking at public meetings.

“It comes with the territory to have disagreements in a public discourse, and that’s part of democracy,” Low said. “But when you start to bully and intimidate people’s family members or go to their homes, that’s something completely different.”

The bill has support from Urban Counties of California and California State Association of Counties, but some who testified at recent hearings on the bill said the change would impede their First Amendment rights.

David Loy, legal director of First Amendment Coalition, said the bill strikes a good balance between protecting free speech and preventing disruption or threats.

“The First Amendment protects robust rights in public comment at (public) meetings, but people are not allowed to actually disrupt or impede the meetings,” Loy told San José Spotlight. “This bill, in its final form, does make clear that there’s only actual disruption or disturbance that justifies removing somebody.”

Sayoc, who terms out this year, said the bill would have been a useful tool for Los Gatos to address the harassment hurled at her and her family last year.

“I am hopeful that this bill will keep people safe in the future— those just trying to conduct business for the public good —and will ensure individuals, and especially women, continue to step up and serve in office without fear of harassment and violence at their public meetings,” she said in a statement.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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