Cleveland City Council may tighten its public comment rules, restricting what until now has been an open-ended forum at council’s Monday night meetings.
The new set of rules would limit comments to “items currently under consideration,” defined as pending legislation and other topics being discussed by council. The council president would have the power to cut off speakers who break the rules, and to temporarily shut down public comment sessions.
Council did not vote on the rules Monday, but could make a decision by the end of the month.
The move comes after a heated few weeks of council meetings. In September, Council President Blaine Griffin cut off the microphones of one commenter who made antisemitic and homophobic comments, and that of another who brought up members’ campaign fundraising. At the end of October, chanting protests against Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip drowned out the proceedings.
Council spokespeople said the changes had been in the works since September, although Griffin acknowledged that meetings had become “very very contentious” over the last few weeks. The council president said he had received calls from people who felt unsafe after meetings turned confrontational, arguing that council had a right to set up guardrails.
“It has always been council’s intent to make sure that public comment and everyone’s freedom of speech is allowed,” Griffin said at a Monday afternoon caucus meeting. “However, we have seen that there is a need, for several reasons, to really make sure that we revisited our rules.”
Currently, council rules allow up to 10 members of the public to talk for three minutes each about almost any topic. People must register in advance to speak at Monday night meetings, listing the topic they plan to address. Speakers are prohibited from campaigning, promoting products, addressing individual members or using “indecent or discriminatory language.”
Council first opened meetings to public comments in 2021, after a citizen-led campaign pressed the body to give attendees the microphone on Monday nights.
The proposed rules do not restrict public comments to Cleveland residents, although several council members said they were frustrated by the number of suburbanites who dominated comment sessions.
Public comments become a focal point at Cleveland City Council meetings
In attendance at Monday’s caucus meeting were representatives from Case Western Reserve University’s First Amendment Clinic and their client, Ward 3 resident Chris Martin.
In September, Griffin cut off Martin’s comments as he read the names of council members who had received campaign donations from the council president’s political action committee. That prompted a letter from Martin’s attorneys warning that council’s rules could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
Council attorney Rachel Nigro Scalish said Monday that council was within its rights to restrict public comments to city business, so long as the rules were neutral about speakers’ viewpoints. She suggested the Clerk of Council would likely interpret the proposed new rules permissively.
“We’re walking a very fine line between what is legal, what is constitutionally protected and what is public opinion,” Griffin said.
After the meeting, First Amendment Clinic director Andrew Geronimo said he was “disappointed” by the conversation.
For several weeks, opponents of Israel’s war in Gaza have filled the public comment rosters. Commenters used their time to criticize Mayor Justin Bibb for tweeting that Cleveland “stands in solidarity with Israel in the face of terror” after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.
Speakers pushed for the mayor to acknowledge the deadly toll that Israel’s airstrikes and ground invasion of Gaza have taken on Palestinians. Near the end of council’s Oct. 30 meeting, protesters chanted “we charge you with genocide” over Griffin’s gavel.
Ward 12 Council Member Rebecca Maurer opposed the rule changes, calling them a “terrible idea,” particularly coming on the heels of the protests.
“I think they look like this council running scared from residents who are coming to speak forcefully before us on issues that matter to them,” she said. “I think that it’s honestly disrespectful to our residents to be having this discussion after weeks of booked-out public comment.”
“I ain’t scared of nobody,” Griffin replied later.
An earlier version of this story misstated the ward where Chris Martin lives.