What Does Michael Houston Have to Say about Free Speech in Public Comments?


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Three items today related to what is apparently the biggest breaking news in Anaheim, William Fitzgerald’s verbal attack on Jordan Brandman, compiled from some anonymous writer.  What’s going on won’t really become clear until you come to the third one.

Anaheim Public Comments controversy

Clockwise from the pointedly included ACLU logo: Councilwoman Kris Murray, William Fitzgerald, James Robert Reade, City Attorney Michael Houston.

(1) LOG CABIN REPUBLICANS STRONGLY DENOUNCE HATE SPEECH IN ANAHEIM

Mr. Mayor – Free speech is not Hate Speech

 The Log Cabin Republicans of Orange County Strongly denounce the anti-Semitic Attacks and Hate Speech allowed to be expressed this week during the Anaheim City Council Meeting.

 Anti-Semitic and Hate Speech Targeted at Anaheim City Councilman (click here)

 We urge Mayor Tom Tait to immediately stop referring to these attacks as free speech.  Hate speech is not free speech. We urge all Republicans to contact the Mayor and ask him to immediately provide decorum at meetings and put an end to the attacks on the Jewish and Gay Communities. He can be reached at  ttait@anaheim.net

A rally is planned for next Tuesday at Anaheim City Hall just prior to the City Council meeting. Please attend and help us urge Mayor Tait to Stop the Hate.

October 8th –  4:30 pm
Anaheim City Hall
200 South Anaheim Blvd

Good for them for denouncing Fitzgerald’s attacks on “bad Jews” and his use of a homophobic slur.  But they’re wrong about the law.  Don’t trust my word on this; ask Anaheim’s City Attorney Michael Houston.  (In fact, why haven’t they asked Michael Houston about this before issuing such a demand?  He told me, the only time I tried to interview him, that he avoids talking to the press — but maybe someone else can get an answer out of him.)

Here’s the thing: What Fitzgerald said is, without question, protected free speech.  By making it impossible for Fitzgerald to speak, as requested, Tait would be violating the law on Anaheim’s behalf and putting Anaheim on the losing end of yet another lawsuit.  Fitzgerald has been represented by the ACLU before, and won, in a similar case; he knows how far he can go.  (So does Tait; so, I presume, does Michael Houston.)

Tait can interrupt a speaker like Fitzgerald and ask him for decorum — and he did.  He can condemn what he said after he speaks — and he did.  He cannot legally gavel him down and make it impossible for him to speak.  Those people who are asking him to do that are asking him to break the law.  If they are urging him to stop referring to these statements as “protected free speech,” they are urging him to lie.

An unflattering possibility is that the goal is to (1) rile people up against Mayor Tait and (2) change the subject from the rip-off of the public by the Pringle Ring, but I’ll presume for now that the Log Cabin Republicans aren’t following Anaheim politics generally.

(2) CAIR-LA CONDEMNS ANTI-SEMITIC ATTACKS ON ANAHEIM CITY COUNCILMAN

The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) today condemned  a series of anti-Semitic remarks targeting an Anaheim City Councilman earlier this week.

During a public comment session at a Monday morning council meeting, an Anaheim resident spewed vicious slurs against Councilman Jordan Brandman. In his tirade against Brandman, William Dennis Fitzgerald blamed the Holocaust on Germany’s Jewish population.

His bigoted comments also characterized Jews as “evil” and “scheming.”

SEE: Anaheim resident spews anti-Semitic remarks at city councilman

“A person’s religion or race should never be vilified because of political differences or otherwise,” said CAIR-LA’s Executive Director Hussam Ayloush. “We stand in solidarity with Councilman Brandman and the Jewish community in condemning this hateful and discriminatory act.” 

In addition, CAIR-LA calls upon the city council to issue a statement rejecting such hate speech in the strongest terms. 

The Council had met to discuss a proposed modification to the process for setting the agenda for council meetings.

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

Good for them, too.  Fitzgerald would probably say that his argument was that only a small minority of Jews acted in ways that precipitated the Holocaust; that doesn’t save the argument from being anti-Semitic.  The issue is not so much the logic of the argument as the venue in which it is presented and the purpose for which it is deployed.  If Fitzgerald wants to write an academic paper about Hitler’s landlord, former teacher, and ex-girlfriend having riled up the future Fuhrer — these examples are from vague memories, as I’m not totally up on current anti-Semitic theories — he can.  Using them in a public attack against Brandman is not only offensive and wrong, but it’s politically stupid; it allows Brandman to change the subject and renders him sympathetic.

I know that Fitzgerald thinks that he has to do this sort of thing to get people to pay attention to the Anaheim City Council.  Well, it finally worked — and, as should have been obvious would be so, it completely backfired.  It moves people from talking about potential city corruption to Fitzgerald’s own bigoted statements.

But here’s the thing to bear in mind about attacks on free speech — they often serve some darker purpose, such as to leverage a legitimate complaint against one person into an illegitimate complaint against many people.  Take this, for example:

(3) An Anonymous Blogger Tries to Blame It on Tait’s Supporters Generally

It bears mentioning that William Fitzgerald cannot be construed as a supporter of Tom Tait by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ve no doubt Tom was as horrified as anyone by those comments. Fitzgerald is a disturbed individual who has launched his scuds at Tom Tait for years, as well.

That’s a good and welcome point.  One reservation: I don’t think that Fitzgerald is mentally disturbed; I think that he is making what he thinks is a rational calculation that creating a disturbance of this sort is a way to call larger public attention to the City Council’s antics.  What he doesn’t seem to get is that (1) people are by now already paying attention and (2) this actually distracts from the points he wants to drive home about public corruption.  But you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.

Now, take a look at what the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce’s paid blogger is paid to do: take your justifiable revulsion at what Fitzgerald said and try to unfairly smear all critics of the Council with it.

At the same time, a tone has been allowed to develop in the council chambers since last year, and it is a mobbish tone characterized by hooting and jeering and booing aimed at those who disagree with the mayor and agree with the council majority. This atmosphere is a deterrent to regular Anaheim citizens making use of public comments if they happen to agree with the council majority on an issue. Most people are anxious or fearful of public speaking under the best of circumstances, will certainly not take to the podium knowing they’ll be heckled by a goon squad.

You know, I’ve attended a lot of Council meetings this year, and I don’t recall a lot of “hooting and jeering and booing.”  Maybe occasionally, but I’m not even sure that I need to concede that much.  Mostly, what you hear is a lot of cheering of people who are willing to the City Council’s giveaways (and its insults towards speakers.)  If there has been booing of speakers at the dais at all, I suspect that it was met with disapproval from Tait supporters.

But maybe this anonymous blogger is right.  You know what’s really great?  It’s all on video.  If he’s right, it should be easy enough to find such examples of the crowd hooting down speakers who support the Council’s giveaways.

So, to the mysterious “Anaheim Insider”: I think that you’re wrong about what happens at the meetings.  I’m sure you’re wrong that it’s in any way prevalent.  (I furthermore think that you’re intentionally lying — or being deceptive just short of actively lying — about it, because your writing seems to be characterized by this.)  I therefore issue you this challenge:

You compile time-stamps of all of the examples you can find since January of this supposedly oppressive tone created at meetings by a “good squad.”  Meanwhile, I’ll compile time-stamps of all of the examples I can find of City Council members, primarily Murray, falsely accusing us poor and fretful public speakers of being misinformed.

You really want to have this out?  Then we’ll have it out.  I doubt that I’ll even have to get to the point where I have to compile the vile and vicious greatest hits of James Robert Reade — who is embraced by both the Council Majority and this anonymous blogger’s own blog.  Where’s the rally to ask him to stop taunting bereaved mothers of sons shot to death by Anaheim Police, like Theresa Smith and Donna Acevedo, with his glee that their sons are dead?

(Yes, he really does this — continually and without rebuke from the dais.)

I think that if someone wanted to rally to criticize Reade — who unlike Fitzgerald and Tait is part of those Council Members’ circle — they’d be justified.  But if they were to call to shut him down, I’d oppose it.

You know why?  Free speech.  The law on that is clear — like it or not.  And a city government is — or at least should be — bound to follow the law.

UPDATE:  And, secondhand through Mayor Tait, the question in the title has been answered!  Here’s his reply.

This past Monday, a special meeting of the Anaheim City Council was held, and an Anaheim resident, who regularly attends council meetings and regularly makes offensive comments, came forward and made statements that were particularly egregious as they were both anti-Semitic and bigoted, and directed toward my council colleague, Jordan Brandman.

I’ve had some time to stew on this terrible experience and I want to make it clear to anyone who was in City Hall Monday morning, and to all of the people who live, work, shop or play here in the City of Anaheim that we believe that all people are created equal, and that we soundly reject hate-mongering, anti-Semitism, and bigotry wherever it should rear its ugly head.

For years this individual has repeatedly attacked the council and me in a vicious and untruthful manner. My council colleagues and I sat stunned during his rant, because we recognize that the courts have found that censoring such comments would violate First Amendment rights to free speech. However, his comments on Monday set a new low even for him. I used the limited powers that are allowed to me as Mayor to attempt to bring forth some sense of civility from his comments. I have been told by our city attorney that I cannot legally stop him from saying such hateful things, but I can call it what it is, morally reprehensible.

It was already clear that Tait condemned Fitzgerald’s remarks from the meeting itself, but this is a good elaboration — and it answers the question of why he didn’t gavel Fitzgerald into submission (or whatever it is Kris Murray is suggesting he should have done): because he and the City Attorney both know that he can’t do so — and that stifling his freedom to speak for that three minutes is asking for yet another expensive lawsuit.

(Of course, some Council members seem to have no problem spending lots of the City’s money on doomed lawsuits.  Could be worse, I suppose — could be Costa Mesa.)


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.