Temecula bans disruptions such as clapping, whistling at public meetings

At a Temecula City Council meeting in August, a brief presentation on the coronavirus vaccine from Temecula Valley Hospital officials was interrupted by loud laughter, boos and jeers.

“People, please show some respect or we will take a recess,” Mayor Maryann Edwards said that night. “If I have to clear the room, I will.”

It was one example of recent disruptive behavior at a public meeting in the city.

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, the Temecula City Council voted 4-1 to approve an ordinance that prohibits conduct at all public meetings that “disrupts, disturbs or otherwise impedes” the session.

Dr. Andrew Ho, a cardiologist and chief of staff at Temecula Valley Hospital, gives a presentation on the coronavirus vaccine on Aug. 10, 2021. His presentation was interrupted by loud jeers and laughter from the audience. (Courtesy photo)

Council Member Jessica Alexander voted no, saying she wanted more clarification.

The new ordinance provides specific examples of “disruptive” behavior, such as speaking out of turn or after time has expired, interrupting a presentation or public comment, and addressing the audience rather than council members.

It also prohibits actions such as clapping, whistling, waving signs, wearing masks or costumes that could impede the meeting, as well as throwing objects, according to the ordinance.

If anyone causes a disruption at public meetings, the mayor, a majority of council members or a presiding officer can issue an order for a warning, a recess in the meeting or the barring from or removal of a person from the session by a law enforcement officer.

If a meeting is interrupted by a person or a group, the ordinance states, the council may also order the room to be cleared so the meeting can continue.

The ordinance also states that a person who still refuses to cooperate may be prosecuted under California’s Penal Code Section 403 for a misdemeanor. The person may also be fined.

The city’s action is an update to its municipal code and clarifies that conduct at public meetings be “consistent with the law,” Edwards said at a late September meeting, when she and Mayor Pro Tem Matt Rahn introduced the ordinance.

Rahn also tried to stop the Aug. 10 jeering of Dr. Andrew Ho, a cardiologist and chief of staff at the Temecula hospital. As Ho discussed the vaccine’s effectiveness and urged residents to get the shot, some in the council chambers loudly voiced their disapproval of the remarks.

Rahn told the audience: “This is not how we act in the city of Temecula.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Council Member James “Stew” Stewart said it was “important for everybody who is going to hear the ramifications of this ordinance.”

In an interview, First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder called the ordinance “specific, and yet so broad.”

He said there are already laws that prevent disruptive behavior in government meetings.

Public agencies have a right to maintain order to ensure that business can be done efficiently, but some actions allowed under the ordinance could be “potentially unlawful,” Snyder said.

“It could have a real chilling effect on people’s ability or willingness to express themselves, and suggests there’s a broad range of activities that might subject someone to punishment,” he said.

“It’s not uncommon for entities to have rules of decorum,” Snyder said. “But I haven’t seen something that’s this detailed. Depending on how this is enforced, it could run afoul of First Amendment protections. If they’re actually going to punish someone by way of kicking them out of a meeting, that could be a First Amendment violation.”

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