Don’t talk too loudly at the library next month – there’s a chance you could be breaking the law.
The Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee will vote Wednesday on a proposed ordinance that would criminalize breaking rules posted in public spaces like city buildings, libraries and public parks. The proposal was first introduced by City Council President Herb Wesson and would charge violators of posted signs with a misdemeanor conviction, which results in either a maximum six-month sentence in county jail, up to a $1,000 fine or both.
Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies, but require the creation of a permanent criminal record and can impact people’s future opportunities, including apartment rentals or employment. Common misdemeanors include vandalism and public intoxication – quite the step up from speaking out of turn at a public meeting.
Charging someone with a misdemeanor for minor disturbances, such as protesting a meeting of elected officials or speaking over the allotted time during a public comments section, would suppress citizens’ freedom of speech. Moreover, the measure is far too broad and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, making enforcement a nightmare for officials and citizens. The City Council must reject this proposal when it comes up for vote later this week.
The proposal comes in the wake of disruptions at the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners’ meetings and activists’ protests at public meetings. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council were urged last week by the American Civil Liberties Union to reject the proposal on the basis of protecting free speech.
And there are previous instances showing that this ordinance could do more harm than good. In 2016, at least two people were arrested at public City Council meetings, one for speaking off topic and the other for exceeding her allotted time. While the two were not charged, this proposal would likely result in others being charged for doing the same.
But giving a lengthy public comment or bringing food into a library is hardly a public offense at the same level as petty theft, simple battery or negligent firearm discharge. The proposal’s ambiguity potentially allows officials to apply it to a wide range of offenses, no matter their irrelevance to public safety. Because any rule posted on a city building could be enforced by the ordinance’s jurisdiction, even people disregarding trivial rules such as exceeding their computer time limits would, by law, be committing a crime worthy of jail time or a fine.
To be fair, City Council meetings can sometimes descend into disorder, with public commenters speaking over their allotted time or generally disrupting the meeting. But there are ways for the council to enforce order at meetings through existing laws. Those who commit serious disruptions at council meetings are already subject to arrest. The city doesn’t need more power to enforce its rules.
The city should not worry about increasing the severity of punishments for commonplace infractions because most of these violations would likely not affect public safety or welfare. Besides, the county jail in Los Angeles is already the largest in the United States. It’s hard to imagine there is a need to arrest people for doing things like speaking out of turn.