Overbroad Restriction of Speech at City Council Meetings Unconstitutional

In Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated an ordinance which made it a misdemeanor for a member of the public to engage in “disorderly, insolent, or disruptive behavior” at a City Council meeting.  Regulation of the “public comments” portion of public meetings must be limited to actual disturbances.  The City’s prohibition of “insolent” behavior was unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.  The City argued that the court should give the ordinance a constitutional interpretation, or sever unconstitutional elements from the ordinance and save the remainder.  The court found that no reasonable construction of the ordinance could eliminate its overbreadth, and the unconstitutional elements were not severable.  The court wrote that the ordinance presented a threat “like a Sword of Damocles” to those addressing the City Council, chilling to freedom of speech.

By Anne Yen

Legal Developments