Citizens Accuse Phoenix City Council of Trying to Limit Free Speech

Is the Phoenix City Council attempting to limit free speech because activists have lined up to call for more police training in a city notorious for citizens getting shot by cops? 

A group of residents is furious about a last-minute amendment proposal tacked onto today's council meeting agenda that, they say, would effectively limit the number of citizens able to comment per meeting to 10.

"The Phoenix City Council is [trying to] tamper/limit with citizens free speech by limiting the amount of time citizens can address them after the agenda items on the meeting are done," local activist Leonard Clark says. 

As it currently stands, the council allows residents to speak for 15 minutes before meetings — three minutes per person — and then allows anyone else wishing to speak to comment at the end of the meeting. but because public comments are not officially on the agenda, there's not always a quorum of council members present. 

The new proposal, which puts public comments on the agenda before and after the meeting, would ensure all members be there to hear speakers, but critics worry it could end up limiting the number of people who get to speak.

While those upset about the proposal see it as a direct response to their activism efforts — "Folks are saying they are doing this in retaliation because Black Lives Matter and other citizens have been going talking about the extraordinarily high kill rate of citizens by Phoenix police," Clark says — the city argues that the change is actually a legal necessity.

Julie Waters, a city spokeswoman, says this isn't at all about citizen activism and writes in an e-mail that the "review of this issue started several months ago."

She also hints that this change is a good step forward since: "Most public agencies only allow one comment period, not two, and the Phoenix City Council is considering allowing two comment periods per meeting."

“If the mayor and council members pass this, they will denying voters who elected them a voice in this vital process of democratic governing,” local activist Joanne Scott Woods says, adding that it's no coincidence that “[ever] since 'we' activists showed up, they devised a way to shut us up.

“How can the mayor and council defend their support of limiting Citizen Comments at this time and place of a local crisis in per capita killings?”

Ever since Mayor Greg Stanton was re-elected and announced that the city would spend $16 million on police hiring efforts, Woods and other outspoken activists have been a regular feature at council meetings. They've relentlessly given impassioned speeches about police-civilian relations and implored their elected officials to do more.

As New Times has written before, the crux of their grievances is a demand for more body cameras and for greater police training — the Phoenix Police Department currently ranks third highest in the country for the number of civilians fatally shot by officers so far in 2015.

Woods says she wouldn't be surprised if Councilman Sal DiCiccio was behind this proposal, since he and the activists have openly clashed in recent weeks about issues of police accountability and the city plan to hire more officers.

“Maybe Sal and [others] are expecting a relentless onslaught of activists from here on out?” she suggests.

But DiCiccio says he didn't propose the rule and doesn't believe it's a direct response to the activists.

Most of the time that members of the public come to a meeting to speak they do so for an agenda item, he says, not the public comment period. He and others on the council don't believe this will cause any sort of speech limitation — something he says he would never support.

“If you looked back at the record, I was the one who [petitioned] for the public comment period to be at the beginning of meetings and to be broadcast [because] people have every right to complain and petition their government, and they shouldn't have to wait around until the end of the meeting,” he says, adding that he can't even remember an instance where public comments have exceeded 15 minutes at the end of the meeting.

Woods counters DiCiccio's assertion by pointing out that following the fatal shooting of Rumain Brisbon last December, the public comment period went on for more than two hours.

When asked about meetings like that, DiCiccio replies: “if there were 200 people in the room, they all have the right to speak, and I think some serious accommodations [to the 15-minute limit] would be made. It would surprise me [if this didn't happen].

“But, then again, nothing surprises me about government anymore.”

**Editor's Note: an earlier version of the this story said Phoenix would spend $1.6 million hiring new officers. The city will spend $16 million.

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser