Speaking limits ruled 'unconstitutional'

A section of a Costa Mesa law that limits what speakers can say at City Council meetings is unconstitutional, federal justices have ruled.

The law's ban on "personal, impertinent, profane, insolent or slanderous remarks" during public comment periods violates free-speech protections found in the 1st Amendment, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found.

In September, the court ruled against the term "insolent" being used and last week barred the additional phrases as well.

However, the court found that the man who brought the case did not suffer a violation of his free-speech rights.

Costa Mesa's ordinance, the justices found, was constitutionally applied to Benito Acosta, who had sued the city and Police Department, arguing that his 1st and 4th amendment rights were violated when then-Mayor Allan Mansoor cut short Acosta's public comments during a January 2006 council meeting.

Both the city and Acosta's counsel declared the ruling a victory.

"There were a number of issues up on appeal, and the city's happy that it prevailed on most of them," said M. Lois Bobak, an attorney who represented the city. "The city's disappointed that the court concluded that some of the city's rules of decorum can be construed as over broad."

"I think it's definitely a victory for Costa Mesa residents and other individuals who wish to express their opinions to their elected officials," said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, an attorney with the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Acosta.

On Jan. 3, 2006, speakers including Acosta, who also goes by Coyotl Tezcatlipoca, and anti-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist addressed a council proposal to partner with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have police officers act as immigration agents enforcing federal law.

Acosta urged those who opposed the ICE partnership to stand, as Gilchrist had done with his supporters. Mansoor responded, "No, we're not going to do that," before the council took a recess.

Acosta tried to continue to speak, but a Costa Mesa police officer asked Acosta to leave the podium, and he was eventually forcibly removed from the Council Chambers.

The city law made it a misdemeanor for anyone speaking at council meetings to be disorderly, insolent or disruptive.

No discussion has yet been held regarding whether the city will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Bobak said.

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