December 6, 2013

ANAHEIM – Sparked by an Anaheim man’s controversial public comments, two nonprofit Orange County groups hosted a presentation on Wednesday to address how officials can handle inappropriate comments, such as hate speech, during public meetings.

The Orange County Human Relations Commission and Association of California Cities-Orange County ran the presentation titled, “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: How public agencies can maintain civility without infringing on free speech.” About 60 elected officials, city staff, police chiefs and staff and nonprofit and business representatives attended.

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of OC Human Relations Commission and moderator, said the event was organized to review speech rights and how to maintain a “hate-free” environment during public meetings.

“The point is, hate speech is legal,” Kennedy said. “You cannot restrict it, but you can work to hopefully discourage and prevent (it.)”

The event was prompted by incidents involving William D. Fitzgerald, an Anaheim resident who used “odious” anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks toward an Anaheim councilman in October, Kennedy said. A 2012 Register report said Fitzgerald also addressed county supervisors in what he testified was an intentional, “abrasive” manner during two meetings in 2010 and 2011.

At a July 27, 2010, meeting, supervisors Janet Nguyen and John Moorlach tried to interrupt Fitzgerald after he compared the clerk of the board to the commander of a concentration camp.

At an Aug. 23, 2011, board meeting, Nguyen and Supervisor Bill Campbell interrupted Fitzgerald after he referred to “cowardly Vietnamese” who he said were supporting a proposal to add a portion of Fountain Valley to Nguyen’s district.

The incidents led to a free speech lawsuit between Fitzgerald and the county. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who represented Fitzgerald in the case argued that the county’s rule against “personal, impertinent, slanderous or profane remarks” violates the U.S. and California constitutions because it bars those types of remarks without regard to whether they are disruptive of the proceedings.

The county argued that the rule only applied to speech that creates a disruption.

After a three-day trial in August 2012, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna ruled for the county. Selna ruled that Fitzgerald did not have legal standing to challenge a county rule governing how members of the public speak to the Board of Supervisors.

Kennedy also said comments similar to Fitzgerald’s have occurred at meetings in Santa Ana and Fullerton.

Panelists Bardis Vakili, ACLU free speech attorney, and Manoj Mate, Whittier Law School constitutional law professor, reviewed speakers’ rights at public meetings and what constitutes free speech. Vakili said speech that is “impeding progress of a meeting” could be interrupted.

“A lot of this stems from training … what to do when someone comes to spew their anger, so to speak,” Vakili said.

Panelists Michael Houston, Anaheim city attorney, and Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes offered suggestions for preventing disruptions from members of the public during meetings.

“Attempt to build rapport and a trusting relationship before they (members of the public) come and speak,” Hughes said. “Try to engage with them…Even if they don’t know if they like you necessarily, you still have to serve them and meet their needs. They just want to express their frustration and concerns.”

In response to the guidance of fellow panelists, Rabbi Rick Steinberg, a member of the OC Human Relations Commission, asked that officials take an authoritative stance during public meetings should hate speech occur.

“Hate violence always starts with hate speech,” Steinberg said. “We have an obligation to speak out against it.”

Several public officials were satisfied with the presentation but Gary Fouse, an adjunct teacher at UC Irvine, said he was disappointed there wasn’t more attention on denouncing hate speech.

“They didn’t even touch upon the difference between the two (free speech and hate speech),” he said.

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Updated 1/30/2014

OC Human Relations hasdeveloped a set of guidelines to help promote and guide civil discourse at public meetings. Click here to read them.