Adam Hill gets lectured on the First Amendment

October 20, 2011

The public comment period during this week’s San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting turned into a lecture on the First Amendment for 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill. [New Times]

Hill shut down comments from Los Osos activist Linde Owen during the Oct. 11 meeting. Owen said she came to the meeting to address her concerns about a lax investigation into allegations of an inappropriate relationship between county Public Works director Paavo Ogren and former Los Osos CSD board member Maria Kelly–the official county report found “no conflict of interest.”

Owen and Hill argued throughout the entire three minutes allotted to public speakers. During the exchange, Owen’s microphone was cut off and she was escorted away from the lectern by a county sheriff’s deputy who for the past 10 months has been stationed in the back of the Board of Supervisors Chambers during public comment.

Owen and others from Los Osos returned this week to condemn Hill’s actions, many of whom cited the Ralph M. Brown Act which established rules for public comment at government meetings. Several of the speakers called on Hill, who last summer had to publicly apologize to COLAB executive director Mike Brown, to issue another apology.

“The allegations that did not come out of my microphone last week … on the combination of what happens when a CSD member takes up close relationship with the head of Public Works and they both have influence on the [Los Osos sewer] project,” Owen said. “That’s where the investigation should have gone, and anyone in their right mind would not have let this county investigate themselves.”

Hill, who is up for re-election in 2012, sat quietly through the remarks and did not comment.

When asked for a comment by New Times, Hill responded by email. “I am not much interested in spending any more time on Ms. Owen.”

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So long, Adam Hill. I wish I could say that it’s been nice knowing you, but it hasn’t.

Think about it.

We are a republic who elect representatives to pass laws.

The 1st Amendment does not guarantee freedom of speech to citizens at an official legislative meeting. They must be “invited” to speak, for lack of a better word. Citizens do not have a right to disrupt an official meeting with any kind of speach.

The BOS meeting is an official legislative meeting.

The BOS must use this time to make decisions.

California’s Brown act grants the public the right to make general comments about issues not on the agenda and on the agenda at their respective times during the meeting.

Since CA has the Brown act, it gives its citizen’s the right to comment at open meetings.

As long as activist Linde Owen speaks in order, she has been given the right to speak.

If its true Supervisor Hill turned off the microphone and had activist Linde Owen escorded out of the BOS chambers because she was critizing the board or government during her GRANTED speaking time, then Supervisor Hill is guilty of violating the Brown Act.

Now it can be argued that Supervisor Hill is a bigot with Ivory Tower elitest ideals since he’s used to the bully pulpit by his previous occupation as teacher/professor. Teacher/professors have an idealist character since they are essentially preaching to a captive audience. Now Supervisor Hill is in a position of creating law and he has to conduct himself not as a benevolent dictator, but that as a statesman.

Turning off a citizen’s microphone during PUBLIC COMMENT for no other reason that he didn’t like what he was hearing is the actions of a dictator not a statesman. Shame on you Supervisor Hill. I hope you lose your seat on the BOS. Actions like this only fuel discontent amoung the masses.

Does the BROWN ACT trump the 1st Amendment? Are the states bound to the Bill of Rights?

Shane, The easiest way to understand things is the 1st Amendment gives you the right to free speech ON YOUR TIME. For example, you can’t barge into a movie theater and expect it is a 1st Amendment right to address the audience. But you can express your speech in the public space where no one is required to listen to you.

Government meetings are not your personal, private time. The People’s business MUST be attended to. The Brown Act provides time just for you in every public meeting, and THIS is where your 1st Amendment right comes into play. BUT, it is still not unlimited. A governing body MAY limit you to comments relevant to the body’s jurisdiction. So, it is possible for the County Supervisors to legally not let you speak out about the war in Iraq (unless there is some nexus to county business).

A governing body may also impose time limits. Typically, we are used to getting three minutes, but this is not guaranteed. FURTHER, a governing body DOES NOT even have to let everyone speak! We are fortunate in this county that this does not happen, but in Los Angeles County it is frequent that the Board Chair picks three to five speakers on each side of an issue only. They can also reasonably limit total public comment–say, to 30 minutes–and get on with business after that.

We often have simplistic and generalized understanding of the Brown Act and 1st Amendment. In reality, it is anything but simple and in many cases not even well defined. Only until some person gives a Nazi salute in a Santa Cruz council meeting and is removed AND SUES can these gray areas be tested in a Court.

Can you give a board member the middle finger during public comment? Can you tell a board they they f***d up your town? Likely not, but these things are really not clear. The Brown Act protects criticism, does that extend to obscenities? A man named Cohen was arrested in 1971 for wearing an “F— the Draft” shirt in a public building, and the Supreme Court vindicated his free speech right to do that.

Many times we don’t test the limits of the rules, and with common decency it is not necessary to test the limits. But the limits are certainly far beyond what Mr. Hill will stand for.

So, who wants to test the limits and spend years in court? Not I.

What is wrong with Adam Hill??? He has no business gagging public criticism of an agency employee!

This was an egregious act by the Board Chair, and reflects on the rest of the Board who did not voice opposition to the Chair.

I encourage Ms. Owen to attempt to repeat her comment at a future Board meeting; she has the right to comment and be heard. If she is rebuffed again, she should consider judicial intervention as she would be performing a public service.

On the other hand, Ms. Owen is incorrect when she attempts to call for a “point of order”. Invoking a “point of order” is not within the purview of anyone but Board members. Instead, another Board member should take note of Mr. Hill’s illegal censorship and call for a point of order on Ms. Owen’s behalf.

Gov. Code 54954.3 (c) The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit

public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services

of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.

Nothing in this subdivision shall confer any privilege or protection

for expression beyond that otherwise provided by law.

Bravo. Excellent post & citation of exact code.

Correction for Hill: It’s not about Linde Owen. It’s about the First Amendment.

Actually, it’s about the Brown Act, and less so about the 1st Amendment…

It is a common misconception that the First Amendment ensures anyone can say anything they’d like during public comment. Public meetings are NOT a forum for unlimited public comment–the Brown Act mandates:

The legislative body cannot prohibit public criticism of policies, procedures, programs, or

services of the agency or the acts or omissions of the legislative body itself. But, the Brown Act provides no immunity for defamatory statements.


Public comment may be limited to items within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.

Can you see how this differs from unlimited First Amendment speech?

Adam Hill, thus, violated the Brown Act and opened the Board of Supervisors to losing a lawsuit.

I know this will generate a few ‘thumbs down’ because of general belief (I am open to opposing points if anyone wants to make them.)

However you should read the Brown Act itself:

Gov. Code 54954.3. (a) Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an

opportunity for members of the public to directly address the

legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or

during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is

within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body…

As you can see, a legislative body does not need to take comment on items not “within the subject matter jurisdiction.” Ms. Owen was speaking to a matter within the Board jurisdiction.

Also, the simple fact that public comment is time limited is more proof the First Amendment does not rule public comment speech.

A great resource is, “Open and Public IV” by the League of Cities:

The Brown Act (limited free speech) is a more regulated form of the First Amendment (unlimited). Brown Act simply governs the efficiency of open meetings while the First Amendment keeps the meetings “open.” Good post, SLORider.

In essence, the First Amendment plays a large role, but I like to make the point whenever I hear the belief there is a right to unlimited comment. Harsh criticism is not limited, but disruption of a meeting with vulgar speech can be cause for removing someone. Ms. Owen was not vulgar. Audience disruption can also cause the audience to actually be removed from a meeting. The Board has a lot of latitude to limit speech (via time limits, disallowing off-topic comment, and even disallowing comment on items previously heard), but comments within their subject matter and criticisms of their government and their agency cannot be silenced.

Adam Hill really embarrassed the Brown Act.

As long as it is the government body where the Brown Act applies to make the determination what is “vulgar,” “audience disruption,” and “off topic,” then, in reality, the reality is that the citizens are bound and gagged from speaking their opinion.

The fact that the citizen has the option to take it to the courts is, in reality, a joke. Especially in bad economic times, the burden of having to seek court assistance to speak out at a public government meeting is on the citizen, and it is burden the majority of citizens would find very difficult to overcome.

Actually, the Brown Act is silent about vulgar speech. It’s really not clear if vulgar, or even obscene speech is permitted! The Court wrote about ‘disruption’ in one case (mentioned below):

“Actual disruption means actual disruption. It does not mean … imaginary disruption. The city cannot define disruption so as to include non-disruption.”

Vulgar *may* be allowed… if it’s not disruptive???

It is ALWAYS the legislative body that has to decide–who else could do that on the spur of the moment? But it is the Court, ultimately, that makes the decision.

A man removed for a Nazi salute at a Santa Cruz council meeting in 2002 was vindicated by an Appellate Court; yet, the case STILL isn’t over! It is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court:

Ms. Owen also has a right to issue defamatory statements ALL SHE WANTS. It is at her own peril that she may do so, but the Brown Act protects her right to make such statements.

Again, I hope Ms. Owen will assert and re-allege her rights by attempting to make her comments again at a future Board meeting. If she is cut off again, then she would seem to have good legal cause to affirm OUR rights judicially.

Okay, playing the token opportunist here, it would also raise the issue another notch, which might inspire the state auditor, controller and AG to open up a few more investigations in SLOCo, especially after the auditor’s expanded powers take effect on 1/1/12.

I don’t really see what the Board’s preclusion of Owen’s comment has to do with the auditor.

It has to do with the subject Ms. Owens sought to address–the conflicts of interests, abuse of power and Brown Act violations that paved the road to Paavo Ogren’s Sewer Vision being voted into reality.

Previous law limited the state auditor to investigation of state agencies.

However, clearly, in the California legislature in passing AB 187, and Governor Brown in signing into law 187, gave the state auditor the right to investigate California State cities, local agencies, and CSDs. Clearly, the intent is to open the door to have the state auditor, controller and attorney general work together to address government officials in the state of California conspiring together to commit fraud on their constituents.

AB 187 was introduced in part as a response to the the horrific conspiracy to commit fraud against the City of Bell residents.

The LATimes described it like this:

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday gave the state auditor broad new powers to investigate the misuse of taxpayer funds by cities and counties, signing legislation in response to the city of Bell financial scandal.

The measure by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) allows the auditor to independently launch an examination of local government agencies, including special districts, to determine whether they are at risk of fraud, waste or mismanagement.

The state auditor has a program to identify government programs with a high risk of fraud or waste, but the law has limited it to state agencies. The auditor can only investigate the finances of local agencies if directed to by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, as the panel did recently for the city of Vernon.

“Through this measure we are creating accountability and ensuring that taxpayers are not left holding the bag, “ Lara said.

AB 187 takes effect Jan. 1.

[, Gov. Jerry Brown expands auditor powers in wake of Bell scandal, 10/4/2011

The BOS cut off the microphone and physically removed Ms. Owens from the meeting chamber to stop her from speaking about the state and county ethics regulations that were used as toiletpaper in the process of getting the massively expensive sewer project passed by the BOS. In my opinion, the BOS efforts to shut down the Los Osos community’s access to speaking at BOS meetings have steadily become a more onerous of a burden to the community.

The Board of Supervisors have made it clear that the citizens of Los Osos no longer have access to speak about this issue of conspiracy, fraud and conflicts of interests–with attendant Brown Act violations raining down on citizens throughout the process–where many millions of dollars will be spent for a comparatively small project serving a comparatively small number of residents.

I believe this raises the ante for the Los Osos citizens to seek either the assistance of the state attorney general, controller and/or auditor to investigate the tortured path, tainted by government malfeasance, Paavo Ogren’s Sewer Vision had to trave to get passed by the Board of Supervisors.

They will have to wait until January 1 to file with the auditor, but considering how long the citizens of Los Osos have had to deal with the County’s cronyism (inside and outside of the bedroom), and attempts to make them jus “lay down and shut up,” a couple of months will seem like nothing.

Am I detecting an anti-Hill theme to the comment section? I had been thinking that he is a popular supervisor who would be a shoe-in for re-election.

From this story and subsequent comments, I think that he might have an uphill (no pun intended) battle on his hands.

I have been rough on Hill as a supervisor, and never thought he would make a good politician (my theory is: scholars are the worst politicians or leaders), but it is not PERSONAL. I do not know him, nor do I begrudge him personally. I’m sure he was/is a fine professor. Just not leadership material, as most academics are not, and we’re now seeing why.

Excellent analysis r0y and I agree with you. Time for a changing of the guard.

Anybody else here wondering if this is how Hill treated his students?

The thread that seems to run through many of the comments is this:

“Mr. Hill only likes to hear his own voice. His idea of class ‘discussion’ is for him to ask a question, call on one or two people, and then talk for another thirty minutes.”

But I’ve read far worse on polyratings about local politicians who also teach at CalPoly. One politician is said by quite a few to stare at female students breasts and give special attention and better grades to attractive females with large breasts.

I kid you not.

Well he married the wrong girl then!

Too bad we all didn’t get a look at this before the election! I do know this man and he is only concerned about one thing…….what he thinks is right…..all else is plowed under. Bulldog is a good word for him……..although I have others!

What made you think he was popular with voters?

I don’t know Hill, but am appalled by his insensitivity, arrogance and lack of knowledge of the Brown Act. He needs to remember that he works for us. As an incumbant, his chances for re-election are increased, but if people are paying attention, his days should be numbered. Not many want a job like this, but hopefully he’ll have worthy competition.

As usual, Another politician that shook hands, kissed babies and lied thru his teeth to get voted into office. And all the trash talk about the past Supervisors just flows to the newly voted in ones. Wow, nothing changes does it. These guys are worse than the last ones.