• email
  • share

Ninth Circuit Decision Elaborates on Standard to Find Disruption of a Public Meeting

The Ninth Circuit has added a new decision to the growing body of case law regarding rules of decorum at official governmental meetings.  In Reza v. Pearce, the Court reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court’s grant of summary judgment based on qualified immunity in favor of Arizona State Senator Pearce and two police officers who arrested Salvador Reza and barred his reentry into the Arizona State Senate Building.  Salvador Reza, a well-known promoter of immigration rights for migrant workers, was barred from entering the Senate Building because of his prior behavior during an immigration bill hearing.

Mr. Reza was in an overflow room with a number of people who were loudly applauding and booing at various times during the Arizona Senate’s intensely contested debate over an immigration bill.  The Senate concluded the meeting without anyone being removed from either the main chamber or the overflow room, but afterwards Senator Pearce, then-President of the Senate and responsible for enforcing the rules of decorum, instructed officers that Mr. Reza and others who had been loud during the debate should not be allowed into the building in the future for fear of disruptive conduct.  Mr. Reza attempted to enter the building two days later to meet with another senator and was arrested.

In addressing the claims against Senator Pearce, the Court reiterated its determination from prior decisions that a meeting of a governmental body, such as a City Council meeting, rent control board meeting or meeting of the Arizona Senate, is a limited public forum.  See
White v. City of Norwalk, Norse v. Santa Cruz, and Kindt v. Santa Monica Rent Control Board.  In a limited public forum, the government may impose time, place and manner restrictions, and it may reserve the forum for its intended purposes, “as long as the regulation on speech is reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” In addition, a person may be removed from such a limited public forum, but only if the person actually disrupts the proceedings.

For the summary judgment motion, Senator Pearce submitted declarations stating that Mr. Reza disrupted the meeting, while Mr. Reza submitted declarations, including one from another Senator, stating that he had not disrupted the meeting.  The Court found there was at minimum a question of fact as to whether Mr. Reza had disrupted the meeting and whether the Senator had a reasonable basis for banning Mr. Reza from the building.  If there was no disruption and no reasonable basis for the ban, Senator Pearce violated Mr. Reza’s First Amendment rights.  The Court found that it was well established in the Ninth Circuit that the standard for removing an attendee from a governmental meeting is actual disruption of the meeting, so if the facts are resolved in favor of Mr. Reza on this issue then Senator Pearce is not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the officers who barred Mr. Reza from entering the building and arrested him based on qualified immunity.  As the President of the State Senate, Senator Pearce had authority to preserve order and decorum.  The Court found that Senator Pearce’s order to ban Mr. Reza from the building was facially valid and that the officers reasonably relied on it to bar Mr. Reza’s entry.  The Court also affirmed the issuance of a protective order to bar discovery regarding the Senator’s relationship with a purported white supremacist.  The Court found it unclear whether the discovery would have led to any admissible evidence, so issuance of the order was not an abuse of discretion.

This is a very difficult area for local and state governments to navigate.  What constitutes an “actual disruption” of a governmental meeting is a fact-intensive inquiry, subject to the experiences and opinions of the fact finder(s) in a legal challenge.  Municipalities need to tread carefully in this area and document a disruption as thoroughly as possible if they want to remove or arrest a speaker or audience member for violating the rules of decorum.