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Public comment period proceeds smoothly after judge blocks some Cleveland City Council rules

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.

On Monday, Cleveland City Council held its first public comment period under new temporary rules approved by a judge after a resident sued the city after they cut his mic during a council meeting in September.

The public comment period Monday included several comments from people urging the City Council to approve a ceasefire resolution in the Israel-Hamas War.

Throughout the meeting, some members of the public shouted over council members as they discussed different topics including a job fair, but the shouting did not interrupt council business and the meeting adjourned about an hour after it began at 7 p.m.

A U.S. District judge signed off on the temporary agreement that reversed limits council placed on residents who wanted to speak during council meetings.

Clevelander Chris Martin and his representing firm, the First Amendment Clinic at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, filed the suit last month after Martin's microphone was cut during a September public comment period.

Council President Blaine Griffin said Martin’s comments violated a rule barring speakers from addressing council members by name — a rule Martin and his lawyers call "unconstitutional."

Martin was one of several people whose comments were cut short that night, sparking concerns over First Amendment compliance. Council pointed to its rules posted online, which banned "indecent or discriminatory language" and addressing council members individually.

Those rules were taken down following the issuance of the temporary restraining order.

"Bottom line is... it's a lot of disappointment but we are dealing with some free speech issues," Griffin told members of council at a Monday meeting. "As long as we have an open mic, it's free speech and protected speech."

He said the council is currently looking at revising rules for First Amendment compliance, and said he'd learned a lot in the process.

"One of the things that is very, very disturbing, and, I’ve learned a lot through this process, is that, yes, somebody can come in and call you the N-word, they can talk about LGBT openly, they can talk about anything," Griffin said.

Council’s previous rules, aside from limits on the number of people allowed to speak and the amount of time they can speak, will be suspended pending the court’s final ruling.

Public comment has only existed at Cleveland council meetings since 2021.

Each week, 10 people may speak — up to three minutes each. They must register in person or online the Wednesday before a Monday meeting. In recent months, those slots have filled up within minutes.

But even these rules prevent residents from addressing their representatives, said Martin.

"If Cleveland City Council were truly concerned about the voice of Clevelanders shut out of public commenter process, they wouldn’t allow just 10 people to speak to them each meeting," Martin told Ideastream. "Even if they haven’t pre-registered, which can be a barrier for making public comment for many folks."

In November, Griffin said council was considering limiting public comment to council business. The First Amendment Law Clinic's Director Andy Geronimo said they will review any future rules to make sure they allow for full constitutional rights.

"I’m pleased by the development," Geronimo said. "I hope the public knows the large portion of the rules have been enjoined and any new proposed rules will meet the first amendment requirements."

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