FREE SPEECH -- "It may not be a high crime, but heckling during Fontana City Council meetings might soon be a misdemeanor," reports Josh Dulaney in the San Bernardino Sun.

The council's Wednesday night agenda cites Penal Code Section 403
in warning that every person who willfully disturbs or breaks up any
lawful public assembly or meeting is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The language has been added to the agenda on the heels of
recent council meetings where Latino activists have clashed with
officials and residents in attendance over illegal immigration.


"Our council meetings aren't going to turn into a circus,"
Mayor Mark Nuaimi said Monday.
Nuaimi is fed up with outcries from the audience when speakers
during the meeting's five-minute public comment time voice their
opinions at the podium.


At the most recent meeting, Nuaimi used the gavel to quiet
outbursts from audience members who opposed Gil Navarro, a trustee for
the San Bernardino County Board of Education, when he condemned
Councilwoman Acquanetta Warren for supporting Arizona's anti-illegal
immigration laws.
"You can't use free speech to start a riot," Nuaimi said.


The agenda also cites Fontana City Code Section 2-33 in
warning the public that: 

any person in the audience who, while in attendance at any
council meeting, uses profane language, or language tending to bring the
council or any of its members into contempt, or any person who
persistently interrupts the proceedings of the council or refuses to be
seated and keep quiet when ordered to do so by the
presiding officer, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.

Navarro said Tuesday that officials should be careful not to
broadly apply the codes.
"I'm more concerned about them interpreting those comments
that I or anybody would make at the podium as a misdemeanor, because
they are treading on sacred ground that's protected speech," he said.

Richard McKee, an expert with the nonprofit open-government
organization Californians Aware, said Navarro's concerns are
well-founded.
"I think it's a reasonable fear," he said. "I've certainly
seen this before and when things get contentious, there are elected
officials who want to shut down opposition."


McKee said the admonition in the city code against language
tending to bring the council or any of its members into contempt
violates protections granted to the public by both the United States and
California constitutions, and the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's
open-meetings law.
"How do you interpret that?" McKee said. "This kind of
ambiguous language that can be interpreted by others cannot be tolerated
in a public forum."

One government analyst said the warnings demonstrate the
balancing act officials face in conducting open meetings that function
in an orderly manner while trying to accomplish city business.
"That's basically what's happening here," said Jessica A.
Levinson, director of political reform for the Los Angeles-based Center
for Governmental Studies. "There is a difference between the right to
speak and the right to drown out."


The warnings may permanently remain on the agenda.
"I think unfortunately it's going to have to be, to put people
on fair notice," Nuaimi said. "It's my job to make sure order and
dignity remains in the meeting and there's not a potential for it to
become unruly."