A&A: Councilman is rude to speakers making public comments. What is our legal recourse?

Q: Our small town elected a person to the city council who has been so bullying and rude to residents during public comments, in official emails to residents and in phone calls and encounters on the streets that the council was forced to adopt a code of conduct. Under COVID-19, it would be especially difficult to do a recall effort. Do any of us have any legal recourse? The code of conduct is toothless and the digital communications policy only applies to employees not elected officials.

A: Unfortunately, your inquiry primarily implicates election laws and the local city council’s own code of conduct, which are somewhat outside the scope of our expertise at this hotline. We can only answer general questions about open government, open records, and the First Amendment.

We note that the Brown Act requires that the public be afforded the right to speak at meetings where the Brown Act applies. Cal. Gov. Code § 54954.3. If the city council member’s actions are so egregious as to actually deny members of the public their right to speak at public meetings, then the Brown Act might provide some recourse. If the city council member is acting uncouth in his interactions with members of the public, then any remedy is unlikely to stem from the Brown Act, which does not impose rules for civility.

We recommend speaking to a local attorney, who can provide you with specific legal advice about any legal remedies you may have in this situation. A good place to look for one would be the County Bar Association’s lawyer referral service.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.