A&A: Non-English Speaking Participants at City Council Meetings

Non-English Speaking Participants at City Council Meetings

Q: In my immediate neighborhood are several non-english speaking neighbors. Recently, some of my neighbors have shared their frustration at not being able to participate in City Council Meetings, either because of the language barrier or because they have to be at work at the same times meetings are held.

If my neighbors write letters in Spanish, am I allowed to read and translate these letters for the public record? Would that count as “my three minutes of time” or my neighbors’ “three minutes of time?”

A: The Brown Act provides that “[e]very agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”  Cal. Govt. Code Section 54954.3(a).  The Act also provides that “[t]he legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of subdivision (a) is carried out, including, but not limited to, regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker.”  Govt. Code Section 54954.3(b).  A meeting of a legislative body is considered to be a limited public forum for First Amendment purposes, and as such, the body faces a substantial burden in justifying any content-based restrictions on speech of members of the public during the public comment portion of the meeting.  Any limitations on content must be shown to be necessary to serve a compelling state interest, and must be narrowly tailored to achieve that goal.  See, e.g., Leventhal v. Vista Unified School Dist., 973 F.Supp. 951 (S.D. Cal. 1997).

You first asked whether you are allowed to read your neighbors’ letters at a city council meeting.  As long as the subject matter is within the jurisdiction of the city council, you should be able to read the letters.  While I find no cases directly on this issue, the city council faces a high threshold to restrict the content of your speech, which could likely not be met by an attempt to restrict you from reading your neighbors’ letters.

Next, you asked whether your reading your neighbors’ letters would count as your public comment time, or your neighbors’.  I find no cases that directly address this issue, but as noted above, the legislative body may impose reasonable restrictions, including time limits “for each individual speaker.”  Govt. Code Section 54954.3(b).  A regulation that provides for a time limit for each speaker, even if you are trying to express the viewpoints of your neighbors, would likely be considered reasonable.  Still, since your purpose is to express the viewpoints of individuals who do not otherwise have an opportunity to address the council, you could argue that restrictions preventing you from expressing your neighbors’ views are unreasonable.  One possibility would be for you to bring your Spanish-speaking neighbors to a meeting, have them read their comments in Spanish, then translate the comments.  It would seem that the council would have a more difficult time restricting this speech than if you simply try to speak for an extended amount of time.

You should also be aware of the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act (Government Code section 7290 et seq.), which provides that “[i]t is the intention of the Legislature in enacting this chapter to provide for effective communication between all levels of government in this state and the people of this state who are precluded from utilizing public services because of language barriers.”  Govt Code Section 7291.  The Act also provides that “[e]very local public agency… serving a substantial number of non-English-speaking people, shall employ a sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions or as interpreters to assist those in such positions, to ensure provision of information and services in the language of the non-English-speaking person.”  Govt Code Section 7293.  “Substantial number of non-English-speaking people” is defined as “members of a group who either do not speak English, or who are unable to effectively communicate in English because it is not their native language, and who comprise 5 percent or more of the people served by any local office or facility of a state agency.”  Govt Code Section 7296.2.  A California Public Utilities Commission opinion also recently expanded on the goal of the Act, explaining:

The Act mandates state agencies to eliminate language barriers that preclude Californians, either because they do not speak or write English or because their primary language is other than English, from having equal access to public services to which they may be entitled. This Act mandates that State and local agencies directly involved in the furnishing of information or the rendering of services to the public must employ a sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions to ensure the provision of information and services to the public in the language of the non- or limited English proficient (LEP) people.

2007 Cal. PUC LEXIS 1, *78-79 (January 11, 2007).  To the extent you communicate with the city council about these issues, you may want to remind them about the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, and of the council’s obligations to provide bilingual services to residents.  Here is a link to further information about the Act: http://www.spb.ca.gov/bilingual/index.htm.