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Our Opinion: Regulate disruptive behavior at City Hall

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Mayor Ted Wheeler is trying to gain control over the proceedings with a proposed code of conduct that would give him the power to expel - and perhaps ban into the future - people who disrupt council meetings. The ACLU of Oregon has objected, saying among other things that the proposed rules give too much power to the presiding officer to decide who should be excluded.

You wouldn't know this from recent Portland City Council meetings, but it is quite possible — rather easy, in fact — to have both freedom of speech and an ability for a government body to get its business done.

Most policy-setting or legislative bodies conduct their meetings with a certain amount of decorum. Citizens are allowed to speak their minds, at the appropriate place and time. Then, the city council, school board or other decision-making body is able to move through its agenda in a businesslike manner.

That's the way the world works. But it hasn't worked that way in Portland for the past several months, as protesters have caused so much disruption that City Council meetings have been postponed or canceled. Some protesters have exhibited offensive behavior and language, and their actions have gone far beyond the civil discourse rightfully expected at a council meeting.

Mayor Ted Wheeler is trying to gain control over the proceedings with a proposed code of conduct that would give him the power to expel — and perhaps ban into the future — people who disrupt council meetings. The ACLU of Oregon has objected, saying among other things that the proposed rules give too much power to the presiding officer to decide who should be excluded. As a result of that objection, Wheeler said he is willing to meet with the civil liberties group to discuss a compromise.

The mayor is wise to work with the ACLU on the rules before he asks the council to adopt them. That way, he might avoid a court battle over the code of conduct.

In particular, he has to be careful about his idea of excluding from future meetings people who are chronic disrupters. That issue has been litigated in the past, with a judge rejecting a previous city rule that allowed such exclusions.

At the same time, no reasonable person should question whether the mayor needs to act forcefully to restore order and civility in the council chambers. The name-calling, shouting and refusal to abide by council rules would not be tolerated long in most other government settings.

Could you imagine what would happen if protesters tried to stop the normal proceedings of the Oregon Legislature or the U.S. Congress? What about in a courtroom, where a judge can hold someone in contempt if he or she interferes with the functioning of the judicial system? Why is it that basic rules of behavior can be enforced in Salem, Washington, D.C., or circuit court, but not at Portland City Hall?

The right to free speech — or free expression, as it is described in Oregon's Constitution — is broad and essential to a true democracy. The Portland protesters cross the line, however, when their speech and actions interfere with the rights of others. There are other citizens who want to speak before the City Council, and they are prevented from doing so when meetings are disrupted by rude behavior.

Further, all Portlanders have a right and an expectation that their city can function in an acceptable manner. Wheeler, or any presiding officer, needs the authority to remove people from meetings — and even ban the most egregious repeat offenders — if they are unwilling to respect the rights of others.

We believe that authority can be granted while still giving full respect to the free-speech protections in the U.S. and Oregon constitutions. First Amendment rights are not absolute — and certainly disruptive behavior can be regulated.

It's too much to expect perfect civility at all times in Portland, but it is not at all unreasonable to require people to follow the simplest rules of order.