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Cleveland City Council's public comment policy under fire after cutting resident microphones

Cleveland resident Chris Martin speaks into a microphone at Cleveland City Council.
Cleveland City Council
Cleveland resident Chris Martin's microphone was cut while he delivered a public comment listing the names of council members that have accepted funds from a political action committee.

Cleveland City Council members pointed to the rules for public comment after they cut residents’ mics for making homophobic and anti-Semitic comments and criticizing council members by name during Monday’s council meeting.

Now, some residents are arguing those rules are not constitutional.

The rules posted on city council’s website bar derogatory language and calling out individual members during public comment periods.

After the first commenter raised her voice and hurled insults at council members and Mayor Justin Bibb, calling them “pompous” and “arrogant,” Council President Blaine Griffin reiterated those rules to the crowd gathered in council chambers.

When Chris Martin took the podium a few minutes later, his time was cut short after he named specific council members who he says received funding from the political action committee Council Leadership Fund.

“Now I have questions about whether that prohibition on addressing individual council members is constitutional in the first place, but even if it is, I wasn’t doing it,” Martin said. “I was addressing the body as a whole.”

Tensions came to a head when the final commenter was silenced for condemning the LGBTQ and Jewish communities.

“We are not going to allow this platform to be utilized for people to insult or impugn the character of individuals in this body, nor are we going to allow you to impugn race and gender and sexual orientation or anything else,” Griffin said Monday. “So those things will swiftly be eliminated.”

But Andy Geronimo, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said according to the U.S. Supreme Court, if a government body allows a public forum, citizens must be guaranteed full First Amendment rights.

“Criticism of government, like petitioning government for redress of grievances is directly in the First Amendment,” Geronimo said. “They’re not obligated to maintain this forum, but once they do, they can’t say you’re not allowed to criticize us in this forum.”

Those protections extend to bigoted speech, Geronimo said.

“Some of these things are really offensive, like slurs, derogatory terms… fall within the scope of the First Amendment and can’t be censored on that basis,” he said.

Some council members, like Kerry McCormack, who is gay, and Rebecca Maurer, who is queer and Jewish, used the end of the meeting to condemn the comments made earlier in the night.

Councilmember Kevin Conwell suggested exploring the possibility of banning repeat offenders.

Geronimo said that he is concerned about that proposal, but Griffin told Ideastream that is not something City Council is considering at this time.

“People have to use a sense of decorum,” he said. “Just because you have a microphone don’t mean you can be abusive and make wild accusations about people.”

Cleveland City Council first opened up public comment in October 2021. Geronimo said if council did not want to adhere to the First Amendment protections, they could close the public forum.

“I have concerns about what that would say about responsive government in Cleveland and the willingness of Cleveland city council members to hear from constituents,” Geronimo said.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.