Racial slurs in Tacoma, anti-Semitic outbursts in Lynnwood: Can city council members cut off offensive speech?

A rash of racist rants during public comment at local city council meetings has some Western Washington elected officials looking for solutions. 

Monday in Lynnwood, a remote speaker spewed antisemitic conspiracy theories for nearly three minutes straight. 

"I am deeply disturbed by the abhorrent comments made at our city council meeting targeting the Jewish community," wrote Lynnwood City Councilmember, Josh Binda on Instagram.

Tuesday in Tacoma, Mayor Victoria Woodards cut off a remote speaker after they made a racial slur. 

"Hey sir, you’re going to need to speak respectful, or I’m going to cut your mic," said Mayor Woodards.

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Robert Gomulkiewicz is a University of Washington law professor. Gomulkiewicz argues not every forum is protected by the First Amendment. City council meetings are not a freedom of speech free-for-all. 

"Many forums that are open to the public are set aside for only certain types of expressive activities; those forums can limit speech to the forum’s purpose," said Gomulkiewicz. "Courts call these `limited public forums.’ A city council meeting is a good example of a limited public forum. The public may be invited to speak, but speech can be limited to the business before the council, usually reflected in its agenda for any given meeting." 

Lynnwood’s City Attorney wants to use that legal argument to curb offensive speech during council meetings.

"Certain public forums do provide more latitude for expression than limited public forums. These are so-called "traditional public forums" such as parks, public squares, and the steps outside of public buildings," said Gomulkiewicz. "These are venues that the public has historically used for expression on issues of public concern. But even for these traditional public forums, the government may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions."