City council chamber audience rules are practical

By Editorial Board

Chicago City Council meetings can get raucous. That’s why four clout-wielding aldermen, one being longtime Financial Committee Chair Edward Burke (14th Ward), are pushing a proposal that would ban certain forms of audience expression from the council chambers during meetings, including yelling, cheering and whistling, among other vocalizations.

In addition, audience members would not be allowed to hold signs or placards during council meetings unless pre-approved by the mayor or alderman presiding over the committee meeting.

Protesters and opposing aldermen are crying free speech infringement. Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, is concerned about giving the council authority to clear its audience from the council chambers.

“A person who is sitting quietly and watching their government in action shouldn’t be kept from that activity or removed simply because of the actions of others,” Yohnka told Chicago News Cooperative about the proposed rule change.

While concerns for having a platform to speak are understandable, aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel hold council meetings to pass measures, not put on a show. These important decisions are made more difficult when there are 50 people booing or clapping every time a measure does or doesn’t pass.

But enacting more rules with no fair trade-off won’t bode well with protesters and just perpetuates public frustration. Allowing a certain time period for groups to take the podium would allow protesters and residents to peacefully present concerns without compromising important city processes.

The city council of Springfield, Ill., has procedures in place already that allow citizens’ five minutes to address concerns to the council during meetings. Rules do apply, and Springfield has some in place similar to those suggested by Burke and his co-sponsors such as speakers must address the council as a whole and refrain from speaking to individual members.

In light of the G-8 and NATO summits, it is important that Emanuel and aldermen tread carefully, something our mayor has yet to master. Protesters reacted vehemently when he enacted stricter protest guidelines in January meant to prepare Chicago for massive riots and potential mass violence.

Unfortunately, Chicago City Council’s rules of order and procedure do not include any avenue for Chicagoans to address the council directly. If Emanuel wants to avoid further ire, it would be best to make sure Chicagoans’ voices are heard.