NEWARK, NJ - Should a person who shouts the words “damn,” “police dogs” or uses racially charged terms while addressing council members during meetings be removed by police from the podium?
The question is one that pits freedom of speech against city council policy. While shouting matches often occur during Newark council meetings, the issue has now caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey.
An ACLU attorney sent Council President Mildred Crump a letter March 11 reminding her of case law that opposes restrictions on speech, especially during public council meetings. The attorney also said police should rarely -- if ever -- be required to enforce rules of decorum in the council chambers.
“Residents should be limited neither based on unreasonable limitations on language perceived as profane nor based on the viewpoints they are expressing, even when the tone is ‘vehement, caustic, [or] unpleasantly sharp,’” wrote ACLU Senior Supervising Attorney Alexander Shalom.
The letter referenced two incidents when speakers were removed from the podium as they shouted critiques on city issues. One incident involved Crump asking the city clerk to issue a warning letter to a speaker that would've barred her from attending council meetings for a year.
Crump said she has not yet responded to the ACLU’s letter. But to her, removing residents from the podium or the chambers is not an infringement on free speech.
“No. I believe in decorum and too often, it’s absent,” Crump told TAPinto Newark.
Newark’s council chambers often fill with shouts, and there is a history of the meetings being so. During Mayor Ras Baraka’s state of the city address, he touted being arrested at a council meeting after singing so “people could have the right to speak.”
Residents often shout from the seats -- even after they’ve spoken at the podium -- during council meetings. At times, the shouting makes it difficult to hear council members who are trying to speak.
The incidents outlined in the ACLU’s letter involved residents who often attend meetings and are outspoken critics of the mayor and council. One of the residents mentioned in the letter, Munirah El-Bomani, told TAPinto Newark that she reached out to the ACLU about how officers were being used at meetings.
Each resident is allowed five minutes to speak during the hearing of citizens portion of the meeting. They must sign up before the meeting to speak.
At the most recent council meeting, copies of the council rules dealing with public comments were placed next to the agendas. One section was bolded:
“...A speaker must at all times conduct himself in a manner which avoids disorderly conduct or behavior, not make comments that are excessively loud, disruptive, obscene or otherwise in violation of applicable law, or make statements directed at Council Members or City Officials that are defamatory or malicious. The Presiding Officer may interrupt or terminate any individual’s speaking privilege if these rules are violated and further may prohibit requests from such individual to register and speak at future Municipal Council meetings…”
INCIDENT NO. 1
Louis Shockley shouted about the lead water crisis in Newark when he used the word "damn” during a Jan. 23 meeting. He questioned why major institutions weren't stepping in to help with the lead issue before appearing to go off on a tangent.
"Where is the Institute for Social Justice? No justice. Where's the Urban League? Where's University Hospital? Where's Beth Israel? Wouldn't happen in a white community. I lived in Minnesota for six-and-a-half years. They made me go tutor the kids. I wasn't trying to be no damn teacher."
The council president then interrupted him and said, "you may not curse."
Shockley responded that he has freedom of speech and could even use a racial slur if he wanted to. That's when Crump cut his microphone.
Crump then ordered police officers to escort Shockley out of the chambers. Two officers then walked Shockley back to his seat, but not out of the chambers.
The ACLU letter said the word “damn” should not be grounds for preventing someone from speaking at a public meeting. The ACLU attorney also wrote that the council should provide notice to the community and warnings so residents know which words are banned.
INCIDENT NO. 2
During a March 6 council meeting, two police officers stood behind resident Lisa Parker as she and Crump began to exchange words about a deal with the city’s parking authority. Parker questioned whether the council president could vote on the issue since her son is an attorney for the authority.
“How dare you,” Crump said. “How dare you suggest that my son would manipulate my vote. How dare you.”
TAPinto Newark observed the incident, although it is not mentioned in the ACLU’s letter. Parker’s comments are not included on the city’s video recording of the meeting. Large portions of the meeting are excluded from the video.
The letter documents a different incident that took place involving El-Bomani during the same meeting, in which she referred to the council's "police dogs."
El-Bomani came up to the podium to speak after Parker, so Bomani began to reference the officers who were standing behind her.
"It's government terrorism," El-Bomani said, referring to the officers standing behind Parker. "Aint nobody scared of y'all. Cuz you ain't nothing without [them] anyway."
"We're not afraid of you," Crump interjected.
"I'm not talking to you, first of all. I'm talking to your police dogs,” El-Bomani responded. “I'm talking to your police dogs. Without a gun, they ain’t nothing. Anybody know it. Everybody know. And you -- without them -- ain't nothing either."
El-Bomani began to raise concerns about the parking authority deal and then again brought up the issue with the officers. She referred to the council’s “police dogs” once more.
“They ain't nothing without the gun with the bullets, okay? So get your governmental police repression, terrorist cops off of us 'cause they went from beating people down with the consent decree, to terrorizing people in these meetings. And y'all sic-ing them on us. We have a right to address this government."
Once her allotted time to speak was up, Councilman At-large Luis Quintana lashed out.
"I will not sit here and allow someone to call police officers dogs,” he shouted. “I have a son [who is a police officer] and he's not a dog. I have a female daughter cop and she's not a dog! No. I will not accept it.”
El-Bomani later addressed the council on a different issue. She again referred to officers as "police dogs." This time, Crump wasn’t having it.
"Did she say dogs again? Officer. Mister clerk," Crump said. She then asked the city clerk to write a letter to Bomani explaining that she would be barred from the council meetings for one year because she referred to police as animals.
An officer can then be heard on a voice recording taken by TAPinto Newark talking to El-Bomani. She says, "I'm not going anywhere" and "I'm not leaving the council meeting."
"You're out of here," Crump says."We're not going to have this."
El-Bomani was escorted out of the meeting, but returned later on.
TAPinto Newark observed Newark City Clerk Kenneth Louis handing a letter to El-Bomani at the following March 12 council meeting. It refers to an incident that happened at a March 5 pre-meeting and accused El-Bomani of acting in an “extremely disorderly and disruptive manner.”
The letter admonished El-Bomani’s actions and said similar behavior in the future would result in her being banned from council meetings. The council would make a determination for how long she should be barred, the letter said.
Shalom, the ACLU attorney, said El-Bomani's choice of words should be protected by the First Amendment.
“It is clear that the speaker would not have been stopped from praising police officers nor would she have been shut down for referring to other categories of people, such as drug dealers, as 'dogs,'" the letter reads. "That is exactly the sort of viewpoint discrimination the Constitution forbids."
OFFICERS FOLLOW ORDERS
Parker, Shockley and El-Bomani took their complaints to the Newark Police Division’s federal monitor, Peter Harvey, during a March 19 community meeting about a consent decree. Harvey was tasked with reviewing the police division following a 2014 federal report that found a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests.
Former Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins also jumped in at the consent decree meeting. She asked Harvey why officers were allowed to "intimidate" and "frighten" residents at council meetings.
"Why is the Newark Police Department engaging in allowing the para-military organization to intimidate and frighten the residents?" she asked.
Capt. Brian O'Hara said the consent decree was mostly in response to incidents on the street, and the incidents at the council meetings were separate issues. He was unsure if there was any police misconduct involved at the council meetings because it was the first time he had heard of the incident.
“The City of Newark has ordinances that they have passed relative to this and then in addition, there's state law," O'Hara said. "When the presiding officer of a public meeting decides that someone is either disruptive...then that person is deemed a defiant trespasser. So then if the police are ordered under the ordinance and the state law, it's their job just to maintain the peace."
Harvey, the monitor, said the issue may have less to do with the Newark police, and more to do with the governing body and its policies.
"Someone may have to pursue an answer from a judge with respect to what are the parameters of their First Amendment rights in a city council meeting to speak," Harvey told residents.