Proposal Would Limit Protests in Council Chambers

Wed, 02-15-2012
By: Hunter Clauss

Ahead of this spring’s NATO and G8 summits, four influential aldermen on Wednesday proposed prohibiting audience members from waving signs or engaging in any “demonstration of approval or disapproval” during City Council meetings.

Under the proposal, the banned conduct in the council chambers would include — but would not be limited to — “cheering, yelling, clapping, foot stomping, whistling, booing or jeering.” The public gallery “may be cleared” if any such behavior occurs, according to the resolution introduced quietly at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The rules also would ban audience members from carrying “signs, placards, banners or posters” in the council chambers without prior approval from the mayor or the aldermen who preside over council committee meetings.

The sponsors of the measure were Edward Burke (14th Ward), Ray Suarez (31st), Carrie Austin (34th) and Richard Mell (33rd).

Mell said Burke came to him with the proposal, and he agreed to support it. The proposal was assigned to Mell’s Rules Committee, which will consider it before the full council could take a vote.

“There is plenty of room outside the chambers” for the public to express its opinions, said Mell, who infamously stood on his desk during a council debate in the 1980s, during a heated council debate after Mayor Harold Washington’s death in 1987.

Mell said he believed the behavior targeted by the new resolution is not allowed during legislative sessions in Washington, Springfield or most other state capitols.

Burke and Austin did not return calls seeking comment, and Suarez declined comment.

Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel also did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Initial reaction to the proposal from other aldermen was split.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he opposed the new rules because he believed police officers assigned to council meetings already did a good job of keeping disruptions to a minimum. He said police officers currently ask audience members to leave the council chambers if they are disruptive.

He also questioned the notion of banning signs from the meeting room.

“People should still be able to exercise their First Amendment rights, which sometimes means people can bring in signs,” Waguespack said. “I don’t see any infringement on our work if someone brings in a sign.”

But Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said the new rules might be needed if protesters attempt to disrupt council meetings when Chicago hosts the NATO and G8 summits in May.

“We’ve got a lot of problems in our city and the last thing we need is chaos,” Cardenas said. “It could be the intention of some of the folks to shut down government, shut down debate and shut down the city’s business, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

First Amendment rights have been a sensitive subject in the council as the city prepares for the two international events. Last month, aldermen approved two widely criticized ordinances backed by Emanuel that imposed new restrictions on protest marches.

One measure requires protesters to describe the sizes of signs, banners or sound equipment in applicatinos to stage marches, and the minimum fine for violating the ordinance increased from $50 to $200. The second measure gave Emanuel greater control to enter into contracts for the summits and allowed Police Supt. Garry McCarthy to expand his department’s ranks by deputizing officers from other cities.

Activists last month protested outside the council chambers as aldermen voted on the two ordinances. One protester was arrested after allegedly striking a police commander.

Waguespack said he did not think the protesters had prevented aldermen from doing their job.

“People got rowdy, but I think it was manageable,” he said. “Nobody likes being called names, but that’s part of democracy.”