St. George City Council tables proposals for free speech zones, rules of conduct and civility

ST. GEORGE — Proposals involving the creation of “free speech zones” for special events and rules of conduct for City Council meetings were tabled by the council during its regular meeting Thursday.

St. George City Councilman Jimmie Hughes notes his own objections related to a proposed free speech zone ordinance for special events, Jan. 19, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Concerns of potentially infringing on someone’s freedom of speech, plus lingering questions surrounding the adoption of more formal procedures for public meetings with a code of conduct attached, left council members wanting further discussion on the matters.

“As soon as I heard ‘free speech zone,’ I tuned out,” Councilman Jimmie Hughes said. “Shouldn’t it be ‘protest zone?’ … I don’t like the name of it. I don’t like the tone of it.”

Hughes’ comment came after some debate over the proposed free speech zones for special events originally introduced to the council during its Jan. 12 work meeting.

The intent of the free speech zone ordinance is to provide the city a detailed toolkit for addressing special events that could be subject to future protest incidents – and it is a toolkit the city currently lacks, Deputy City Attorney Ryan Dooley said.

Recent protest incidents at the Dixie Roundup Rodeo, Southern Utah Pride Festival and Downtown Farmers Market have prompted city officials to consider amending the city’s special event permitting process to require applicants to note if they expect a protest or have been subject to them in the past.

If so, the city would require particular steps to ensure a potential protest doesn’t overly disrupt the event while still allowing protesters the ability to peacefully share and display their opposition.

“Our concern that we have seen is that an event is disrupted to the point it cannot continue,” Councilwoman Danielle Larkin said.

An example of “disruptive and obnoxious” protesters was made of the Official Street Preachers who showed up at last September’s Pride Festival. The protesters walked into the middle of the event and proceeded to be loud and belligerent toward festival attendees while also holding signs aloft to attempt to block the sight of a performance stage.

While event security initially dealt with the protesters, St. George Police officers ultimately were dispatched to the festival to help maintain the peace.

In this file photo, the Southern Utah Pride Festival brought people from all backgrounds, including protesters in Historic Town Square, St. George, Utah, Sept. 17, 2022 | Photo by Nick Yamashita, St. George News

One of the “tools” Dooley said the city needs is the designation – either by the city or special event organizers – of a zone the protesters can be without being disruptive while also giving them a spot where they won’t be subject to removal. Otherwise the protesters can wander through the event until the police potentially become involved, which raises another question – without the free speech zone, where are the police supposed the send the protesters?

The city currently lacks clear guidelines on how to deal with protest incidents. The proposed ordinance would correct that, Dooley said.

Councilwoman Michelle Tanner did not like the idea of free speech zones and their associated restrictions.

There were already laws in place that covered the city as far as dealing with disorderly and disruptive protesters, said Tanner, adding she’d rather see the city be reactionary toward potential incidents rather than enact proactive rules that may cross the line of infringing on free speech.

“I can’t believe we’re entertaining this,” Tanner said. “As it’s written, this is begging for lawsuits.”

While Tanner questioned the need and constitutionality of the proposed free speech zones, members of the public sitting in the council chambers’ gallery whispered their own objections, such as “The whole United States is a free speech zone,” and, “You can’t stop me from speaking out.”

Dooley argued the Supreme Court has ruled that the creation of free speech zones for public safety reasons is allowable, but Tanner remained skeptical of the issue.

St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, right, voices opposition to proposals related to free speech zones and stricter observance of certain parliamentary procedures for public meetings that she said were potential infringements on free speech, St. George, Utah, Jan. 19, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Tanner further said special event organizers, and not the city, should bear the burden of enacting counter-protest measures.

Part of the free speech zone proposal also dictates that protesters would only be able to use handheld signs and not put them on poles due to concerns they could be used to club someone. They also could not set up tables, booths or amplified sound systems.

At that point, Dooley said, the protesting group is holding a special event and is subject to needing a city-issued event permit of its own.

City Manager John Willis, who previously stated he had concerns about implementing the free speech zones, said the city needs to “tighten up its special events ordinance” in order to address the lack of specifics Dooley mentioned.

“There needs to be an outline so there is no ambiguity,” Dooley told the council.

Unable to resolve concerns surrounding the proposed ordinance, the City Council unanimously voted to table the item.

Less discussion was had concerning proposed rules regarding the adoption of more formal procedures for the council’s regular work meetings before the council voted to table that item as well.

Deputy City Attorney Jami Bracken, who outlined the proposed rules with the council during its Jan. 12 work meeting, said she understood the council had concerns about the agenda item and suggested it be tabled for the time being.

The new rules for a more formal framework for future council meetings would come from a stricter observance of Robert’s Rules of Order, a long-used set of rules for parliamentary procedure used by bodies like the Utah Legislature and Congress.

Deputy City Attorney Jami Bracken (top left) speaks to a proposal for the city to adopt more formal procedures for its public meetings along with a code of conduct and civility for council members and members of the public to observe during those meetings, St. George, Utah, Jan. 19, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

County and municipal governments often observe a more simplified and informal version of Robert’s Rules, Bracken told St. George News following the vote to table the item. She also noted that state law requires the city to adopt “rules of order and procedure” for public meetings of the City Council and that council meetings be conducted under said rules.

In addition to a stricter observance of Robert’s Rule was a recommendation for the city to adopt a code of civility detailing how council members should address each other and the public. Failure to observe the rules could result in particular penalties, the greatest of which could result in “criminal penalties or removal from office,” according to the language of the proposed rules.

That was one of the sticking points for Tanner who was the only council member to voice their opinion toward the proposed rules of conduct and civility during Thursday night’s meeting.

“I think we need to go back to the drawing board,” she said of the proposal, adding that it was the “most fascist, communistic” policy for public meetings and conduct she had ever read.

“I have major concerns regarding the unconstitutionality of threatening criminal charges and removal of office for an elected official’s ability to publicly criticize a majority vote,” Tanner said in an email to St. George News. “Free speech and the ability to express concerns and grievances is critical to the very fabric of our Constitutional Republic. It is un-American to interfere with the very duty of an elected official’s obligation to be transparent and a voice in upholding the Constitution and representing The People.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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