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Lowell Council to Study Limits to Public Protests

May 23, 2018 GMT

LOWELL -- Raucous debates take place in the City Council chamber from time to time.

One person speaks passionately for a project, let’s say a high school at Cawley Stadium. Another person voices their concerns about the proposal, and on and on.

Last week, that exchange of ideas never took place. And that has angered, upset and embarrassed Lowell officials who want to make sure that exchange of opinions is not halted in the future.

They agreed at Tuesday’s council meeting that the city needs to add ground rules so a protest like last week doesn’t happen again.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to send proposed rules changes, including a proposal for a “free-speech zone” and an amendment that would ban signs, to the Rules Subcommittee. Two motions from councilors about the issue were also referred to the subcommittee.

Councilors eviscerated the protesters’ actions from last week -- calling it an “embarrassment,” “disrespectful,” “insulting,” “unacceptable” and more -- as the protesters held signs in the background that oppose the proposed rules changes, namely the rule that would ban signs.

Two of the signs they held read: “This is a sign.” “Sounds like a lawsuit.”

Last week, those protesters interrupted a City Council subcommittee meeting about a $30 million National Grid project, and caused the meeting to end abruptly.

During that Environment & Flood Issues Subcommittee, protesters sat down in the center of the chamber, chanted from the balcony and yelled at National Grid representatives to “leave and never come back.” City councilors adjourned the meeting and National Grid officials left without presenting the Lowell Area Gas Modernization Project.

In response to this, City Manager Eileen Donoghue asked the Law Department to research creating a “free speech zone” on the grounds of City Hall and other policies.

She said the Law Department looked at other communities, such as the Boston City Council to learn about their rules.

Lowell’s proposed amendment to public participation at council meetings reads: “No demonstration of approval or disapproval from members of the public will be permitted (including, but not limited to signs, placards, banners, cheering, clapping, booing, etc.) and if such demonstrations are made, the gallery or public seating area will be cleared.

“Further, there shall be an established Free Speech Zone, to be located on the grounds of City Hall,” the amendment continues. “The areas, as designated by the Superintendent of Police, shall be clearly marked with signage and boundary markers.”

Donoghue said demonstrations traditionally happen outside the building, but not in the City Council chamber like last week.

“What took place last week was really out of hand,” said City Councilor Vesna Nuon.

City Councilor Rita Mercier said she has no problem with people holding signs, as protesters held signs directly behind her Tuesday evening.

But people have no right to disrupt the meeting and “act like a bunch of bullies and thugs,” Mercier said. She said citizens cannot come through the railing and sit on the council floor.

“You have a right to express your opinion in a dignified way,” she said.

Her motion to address the issue is for the Law Department to provide an outline of where people are “allowed to demonstrate or protest if not in the council chamber during a public meeting and post signs indicating such.”

City Councilor Rodney Elliott emphasized that the city needs to lay out ground rules on this issue, so the council can conduct its business in the chamber.

If the council sits back and does nothing, “then shame on us,” Elliott said. “Then we’re not doing our job.”

He said the proposed rules changes make sense, and would allow them to conduct the city’s business and still allow people to demonstrate.

Elliott’s motion is for the city manager to develop a policy and/or designated area to “allow citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

City Councilor Edward Kennedy pointed out that police officers are not at subcommittee meetings, like the one last week. An alternative could be having a police officer at every subcommittee meeting, he said.

“I’m not sure it’s the answer to this,” Kennedy added.

Mayor William Samaras requested that additional police officers attend Tuesday’s council meeting “for safety,” he said. There were five officers in the chamber.

“I hope last week won’t happen again, that it was an anomaly,” the mayor said.

City Councilor Karen Cirillo was the chair of last week’s subcommittee meeting. She said the protesters were “selfish” and “bullying.”

Cirillo said it’s important to update the rules and procedures, and she looks forward to what the Rules Subcommittee comes back with.

Both City Councilor John Leahy and Jim Milinazzo said they don’t want a “free speech zone.” The council has done a good job of controlling debate in the chamber, Milinazzo said.

“At the end of the day, we have a very good track record of running meetings and making people comfortable and feel safe,” he said.

On Monday, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition called these proposed rules changes an overreaction to what happened last week. Executive Director Justin Silverman called it a “restricted speech zone.”

A resident, Stephen Malagodi, at Tuesday’s meeting also called it restrictive, and an overreaction.

National Grid planned to be back in front of the council Tuesday for two public hearings that involved different projects from last week.

However, National Grid asked for a continuance for those projects until June 26.

A few councilors looked up at the balcony when the mayor announced the public hearings, but there was no protest this time with National Grid officials not in the building.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun