Cooper City wants to ban politics, profanity at City Hall meetings

By Susannah Bryan and Rachel Hatzipanagos | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 15, 2008

COOPER CITY - Dare to wear an Obama or McCain campaign pin to a Cooper City meeting and you might get hit with a $75 fine. That's if city leaders embrace an ordinance that would outlaw wearing buttons or clothing with a political message at city events held on public property. Political signs and literature, profane language and boisterous behavior also would be banned under the plan the commission is expected to discuss tonight. Commissioner John Sims said on Monday he is pushing the proposal as a way to restore polite behavior at the city's notoriously raucous public meetings. "You've got to hit people where it hurts, in their pocket," he said, explaining that a $75 fine would discourage rowdiness. Sims' proposal comes two months after the commission approved a resolution that discourages verbal attacks during public meetings. At the time, the commission said the measure was an attempt to bring civility to City Hall. Sims, the target of a failed recall effort earlier this year, said the current rules don't go far enough. Longtime resident Gladys Wilson railed against Sim's new plan. "I have a First Amendment right to wear a pin, a necklace, a pair of earrings, whatever I want to wear," she said. "It's just ridiculous what's going on." Mayor Debbie Eisinger doubts such a measure would be legal. "On public property, I don't think that you can stop someone from campaigning or taking some political activity," she said. City Attorney David Wolpin said former City Clerk Susan Bernard drafted the proposed ordinance at Sims' request without consulting him. Wolpin declined to discuss the proposal, saying he planned to share his legal opinion with commissioners tonight. Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said the proposed law is "clearly unconstitutional" and goes too far in prohibiting free speech. But Marc Rohr, also a law professor at NSU, said the city's elected leaders have the right to limit free speech, including campaign buttons, during public meetings. "There are certain settings in which government entities can control the forum," Rohr said. Earlier this year, some residents targeted Sims, saying they wanted him removed from office for a now-defunct blog registered to him that posted anti-Semitic statements about the mayor. Sims has said he had nothing to do with the postings. Sims said local campaigns were the main target of his new proposal, but added he has no problem banning Obama or McCain campaign buttons. "The meetings should not give a venue for people to express their political views," he said. "My attempt is to limit political grandstanding inside City Hall."

Diane Sori, an outspoken critic of City Hall, said she plans to speak out against the measure. "This is not how freedom of speech works in the United States," she said. Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said Sims' plan goes too far. "I don't think this would be passed. If it does I'll be dumbfounded," Mallozzi said. Walt Jolliff, a Sims supporter, compared some City Commission meetings to a "Salem witch hunt." While critics say the new rule would trample on free speech, Jolliff doesn't share those concerns. "You have to start some place," he said. Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7929.

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