Ninth Circuit Reaffirms Cities' Ability
to Regulate Disruptive Speech at
Public Meetings

September 11 2012

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa recently reaffirmed that a city council meeting at which the public is allowed to speak is a limited public forum for purposes of the First Amendment. As such, cities may impose reasonable "time, place, and manner" restrictions on such speech. Cities may also impose reasonable restrictions on the content of such speech so long as the restrictions are viewpoint neutral and directed only at speech that is actually disruptive.

The plaintiff in Acosta voiced objections to an immigration enforcement agreement at a city council meeting, called the mayor "a racist pig" during the public comment period and then physically resisted the efforts of police officers to remove him from the podium during a recess called by the mayor in response to that and other comments. The plaintiff sued Costa Mesa alleging the city's ordinance prohibiting "disorderly, insolent, or disturbing" speech at public meetings was overbroad in violation of the First Amendment. The Ninth Circuit agreed to the extent the ordinance prohibited "insolent" speech that was not actually disruptive of a meeting. The court deemed the prohibition against insolent speech severable from the rest of the ordinance, however, and upheld the remainder of the ordinance. As to the plaintiff's claims that the ordinance was improperly applied to him, the court held that the ordinance was validly applied in his case because the jury reasonably determined that the mayor neutrally and constitutionally applied the city's decorum rules to the plaintiff and implicitly found the plaintiff had in fact disrupted the council meeting.

Acosta is a timely reminder for local agencies to review their public meeting rules and procedures to make sure they fully comply with the First Amendment.

Opinion published - September 5, 2012

For more information on Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa or any First Amendment Matter, please contact Steve L. Flower at, or any of the members of the Firm's Public Law Department.

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