ACLU to Carlsbad: Allow Free Speech, Even If Crude

April 18, 2011
Charging that the city of Carlsbad’s ordinance prohibiting “vulgar, profane, loud or boisterous language” at city council meetings is vague and overbroad, the San Diego ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Friday calling for a permanent injunction against enforcement of that portion of the code.

The ordinance became notorious this past summer when a Carlsbad resident, Richard Shapiro, was charged with violating section 1.20.330(b) of the Carlsbad Municipal Code, which says:

Any member of the council or other person using vulgar, profane, loud or boisterous language at any meeting or otherwise interrupting the proceedings of the council, or who refuses to carry out orders and instructions given by the presiding officer for the purpose of maintaining order and decorum at the council meeting, or who interrupts proceedings, shall upon conviction be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.

Shapiro regularly testifies at Carlsbad City Council meetings. On three separate occasions this past summer, in speaking passionately about his views on civic matters, he used the terms “bullshit” or “pussies.” He was twice escorted out by police officers and thrice charged with an infraction of the municipal code.

“The city might not like Mr. Shapiro’s word choice, and might even consider it distasteful, but we are long past the days when the government can enforce grade school standards of acceptable speech in an adult forum,” said Sarah Abshear, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “This is especially true for political speech—exactly what our First Amendment was designed to protect.”

Courts have long ruled that speech—particularly political speech—is protected, though certain time, place and manner restrictions are permissible in the context of a city council meeting. But city officers could not lawfully eject Shapiro from the city council meeting without an actual disruption of the meeting due to something other than the content of his speech. Indeed, Shapiro did not interrupt other speakers, and willingly left the podium when his allotted time expired.

“It is clear that Mr. Shapiro was silenced repeatedly because of the content of his speech,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director for the San Diego ACLU. “Carlsbad city officials censored him because they did not like the words he used. That is ridiculous and unconstitutional. This is not Pleasantville. This is America.”

Shortly after receiving a letter from the San Diego ACLU in March 2011, the San Diego District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against Shapiro. However, neither the District Attorney nor any Carlsbad officials admitted that the ordinance was unconstitutional or disavowed future attempts to enforce it against Shapiro or other speakers.