As reported in the Orange County Register, The Orange County Board of Supervisors dealt another blow to free speech at county meetings.
A few weeks ago, John Moorlach initiated a proposal to limit the amount of time a member of the public may speak during an open session of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. It was narrowly defeated 3-2 with Bill Campbell among those who chose to preserve 1st Amendment rights rather than punish the general public for the sake of a sole gadfly.
Michael Klubnikin, who has legal and personal issues with the Superior Court and the Public Guardian, has taken a somewhat creative approach over the past few months to harangue the Gang of Five. Rather than prohibit him from speaking on issues because they either have been brought up before or because they do not fall under the purview of the Board, Moorlach chose to paint a large swath by attacking free speech in general and limiting all speakers to three minutes per item and a total of three items per meeting. The defeating vote looked like that was the end of it until a subsequent meeting, where Klubinikin spent a more than an hour, three minutes at a time, to harass the board.
After that meeting, Campbell changed his mind and told Moorlach that he would be inclined to vote with him in abrogating free speech at board of supervisors meetings. On Tuesday, another vote was taken and the rule change, with some modification to make the limit a 9 minute aggregate, passed 4-1 with Supervisor Janet Nguyen the sole dissent.
ACLU attorneys said the decision coming from a body that is supposed to serve the people was dissappointing. And, although Terry Francke, a free speech advocate and attorney said the decision appeared to “comport” with the Brown Act, he did not sound too happy about the decision.
Nguyen’s dissent is unsurprising. As a Vietnamese-American, she understands the chilling effect supressing free speech can have in a democracy. What is surprsing is Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican and near-libertarian, voted with the majority. Given his stated views on the limitation of government and the 2nd Amendment rights of people to bear arms, Nelson, along with Nguyen, should have taken the lead in opposing this measure. His opinion to the contrary would probably have swayed Campbell who has had trouble, throughout his stewardship on the board, making decisions on his own when it comes to issues such as this. And, for once, we agree with Darrell Nolta, a frequent speaker and critic of the OC Board of Supervisors when he asked why Moorlach needed such a draconian approach of suppressing the free speech of everyone to rein in one voice.
So why the limits? Granted, few people want to hear one person continuously drone on about their personal problems every few minutes. And, no one disagrees that the board has better things to do with their time. Klubnikin, unlike Darrell Nolta, spends considerable time spinning each issue he speaks on before the board into his personal saga of troubles with the county and courts. But, rather than use existing rules to further prohibit abuse of his right to speak, the supervisors decided to limit everyone. And, there is little comfort in Moorlach’s assertion that the board would have discretion to allow variance when necessary. If limiting the possibility of lawsuits, as Bill Campbell asserted, is one reason for the rule, then allowing this type of discretion will probably lead to a likelihood of a lawsuit when it is perceived that the board is allowing their cronies and advocates extra time but not those who they perceive as adversarial.
For the time being, it looks as if the Orange County Board of Supervisors will have their way. How long will it be until individual city councils will follow suit? As it stands, few people actually speak before the government councils because they feel their voices are not heard. Folks like Nolta who, while often perceived as gadflys, believe themselves to be acting in a watchdog capacity, may now pay the price for expediency.
We’d like to know what you think of this issue? Should a governmental body, whose purpose it is to listen and serve the public, be allowed to unnecessarily limit the right of the public to address them simply for the sake of expediency?