Free screech

If citizens want to give their two cents’ worth to City Hall, can they use equipment paid for by tax dollars?

Discussion of this issue was sedate during the Reno City Council’s Mar. 19 special session, at least compared to the previous meeting, when the city attorney, councilmembers and citizens squabbled over the use of audio-visual equipment during presentations to the council. Peace activists filed a lawsuit claiming unfair treatment during the Mar. 12 public-comment period.

This week, the council sought to clarify its earlier policy that a citizen could use the microphone but not a projector that displays materials on overhead screens. Inconsistent enforcement of the policy led to the showdown between City Attorney Patricia Lynch and anti-war activist Patricia Axelrod at the Mar. 12 meeting.

Two councilmembers defended a citizen’s right to display photos and other printed material.

“I don’t think it’s a good policy,” said Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza. She said the policy has been selectively enforced. “Any member of the public should be able to use the equipment. People should be able to address us freely and openly.”

Councilman Pierre Hascheff agreed.

The two had been silent when Axelrod was shut down after displaying a photo of a charred corpse. Hascheff defended his silence, saying that since the item hadn’t been on the agenda, he couldn’t speak to the issue.

Mayor Robert Cashell introduced a new concern: that the SNCAT viewing public not be subjected to visual aids during the public-comment period. SNCAT is a cable channel that broadcasts the public meetings of several government agencies. If inappropriate material were broadcast, the council might be held liable. Sferrazza was not alone in her dismissal of this notion.

First Amendment expert Allen Lichtenstein said that liability concerns are “nonsense.”

“What the fear is really about,” said the ACLU spokesman, “is offending people, [but] we’re better off when full disclosure and openness trump individual sensibilities.”

Councilman Dwight Dortsch favored pulling the plug entirely. “There’s no need for audio-visual equipment,” he said.

Sferrazza’s motion that everyone be allowed to use the equipment failed, garnering only Hascheff’s support. Instead, the council passed a motion that citizens can use the equipment during public comment but that SNCAT can’t broadcast material projected within the chamber. Only Sferrazza voted against the new policy. In minutes, City Hall’s Sharon Spangler was on the phone to Don Alexander, production director at SNCAT.

“Generally we leave the camera locked down on the person anyway,” he said after hearing the new directive. His job wouldn’t be affected by the 45-minute debate. “It’s not changing our operation to any real extent.”

The “content-neutral” public-access channel shows a loose upper body shot when someone speaks during public comment. It’s unusual, he said, for people to use the A/V equipment.

If a person were to hold up a picture at chest level, what would he do? He wasn’t sure, since City Hall hadn’t given any direction on that eventuality.

Lichtenstein said the new policy is legal but “appears not to be a particularly well-thought-out policy.”