Proposed changes to public comment rules at Evanston City Council fail

Proposed changes to Evanston City Council’s rules for public comment, in response to antisemitic rhetoric at a previous meeting, failed to come to fruition during the March 11 meeting.

Councilmember Devon Reid withdrew his proposal that would have allowed City Council the ability to cut off hate speech. The proposed changes included prioritization of Evanston residents for public comment, removal of the requirement that emailed comments be read aloud during meetings and shortening the public comment period to 30 minutes in alignment with the Illinois State Attorney General’s recommendations. This would allow public comment to be ended at 30 minutes if requested by the mayor or two council members.

Reid withdrew his proposal due to a lack of support and concerns from the council about limiting residents’ ability to provide public comment.

Reid had also hoped to set a standard time limit, suggesting two to three minutes per speaker. Council currently divides the allotted time by the number of speakers, which Reid worries could be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The proposal came in response to multiple antisemitic comments stated during the Feb. 22 special city council meeting. One in-person attendee, along with several online commenters, engaged in hate speech until Mayor Daniel Biss cut off public comment. The move was allowed as city rules state council can end public comment after 45 minutes.

“The point of this is to try to give council tools that follow the Open Meetings Act, that follow the First Amendment to try to control the kind of hateful comments that were made recently,” Reid said. “If we have the 45 minutes in the rules, we have no power to shut down public comment before the 45-minute mark.”

The issue is a difficult one to manage as the city can’t impede on speakers’ First Amendment rights to free speech or require an address or ID be presented before a speaker can give public comment, according to Reid.

Interim Corporation Counsel Alex Ruggie explained public comment isn’t required to have a virtual option, a policy Evanston has allowed, and suggested eliminating this as an option. Some nearby municipalities also only allow public comment on agenda items at the start of the meeting and add a second public comment period at the end of the meeting for general comments.

“We cannot regulate speech by content,” Ruggie said.

A possible delay for online comments was suggested by Councilmember Clare Kelly who said most of the issues with vulgar public comment have come in the form of “zoom bombing” where people go into the virtual stream of the meeting to yell obscenities and hateful speech.

Councilmember Jonathon Nieuwsma suggested the best solution is to be “quick on the mute button.” He also said public comment, while required by state law, isn’t the best problem-solving option considering it doesn’t foster constructive back and forth dialogue.

“I don’t want to let those bad guys win,” Nieuwsma said. “What they are looking for is to do something exactly like what we’re talking about maybe doing here, which is curtailing public comment or somehow making it more difficult for members of the public to engage.”

Reid pushed back against those who said his suggestions would limit public comment, arguing if history were to repeat itself and hateful public commenters were cut off, they could turn around and sue the city. He went on to withdraw his proposal, ending discussion.

“Then we have to give Evanston taxpayer money to someone who is saying antisemitic stuff,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”