Gays? Palestinians? Speaking Your Mind Can Spell Trouble on the City Council

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After a New York City councilman said that the Council was “controlled by the homosexual community,” his influential committee — created at his request — was dissolved.

Another council member was bounced from the immigration committee when he said on Twitter that “Palestine does not exist,” and referred to “so-called ‘Palestinians’” in another tweet.

The remarks, by Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx and Kalman Yeger of Brooklyn, brought immediate condemnation from their colleagues and led to what the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, said was a “loss of confidence” in both men.

As more and more public officials face scrutiny for expressing views that some perceive as racist, homophobic, sexist or hateful, the effort to deal with them in a way that satisfies the public’s desire for justice while upholding the free-speech rights of the offenders has become increasingly complex.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged the tricky balancing act, but said it was his duty “to make sure all people and all communities feel seen, heard and respected.”

“You have a right to free speech,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “But you don’t have a right to a committee on the City Council.”

David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit that defends First Amendment rights and political speech, said that Mr. Díaz and Mr. Yeger would have good reason to sue, if they chose; he said the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that public employees and legislators have the same rights to free speech as private citizens.

“These people are being punished for their speech,” Mr. Keating said, referring to Mr. Yeger and Mr. Díaz. “If you don’t agree with something, the remedy is to speak out about your views.”

In 1966, the Georgia House of Representatives voted not to seat the civil rights activist Julian Bond, who had just been elected, because he spoke against the Vietnam War. A lower court upheld the move, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that officials in a “representative government” should be given “the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy.”

In 1962, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of James Wood, a Georgia sheriff who had been found guilty of contempt of court for criticizing the decision of a judge to convene a grand jury to investigate whether African-Americans engaged in election fraud. The court ruled that it was “imperative” that elected officials be “allowed freely to express themselves on matters of current public importance.”

Eliminating Mr. Díaz’s Committee on For-Hire Vehicles or removing Mr. Yeger from the Committee on Immigration is akin to the government taking action to curtail speech, Mr. Keating suggested.

“There is a potential chill on free speech. Maybe one of the other 49 Council members will say: ‘I should keep my mouth shut if what I have to say is not popular,’” he said.

Indeed, the City Council’s vote to remove Mr. Yeger from the immigration committee was not unanimous. While 35 members voted for removal, seven sided with Mr. Yeger. Many who voted no, including Mr. Díaz, cited freedom of speech. (Two members abstained.)

And while a group of council members called for the resignation of Mr. Díaz, who has a long history of homophobic comments, they stopped short of endorsing an effort to remove him from the Council.

“Maybe we don’t have to like what people say. Maybe we hate what people say, maybe we feel horrified what people say, but we have to stop trying to quiet people on this body,” Mr. Díaz said during a passionate speech. “You are violating people’s First Amendment. They did it to me, now they did it to Yeger.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Díaz sent a letter to the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics alleging that his First Amendment rights had been violated. Mr. Díaz said in an interview that removing council members from their committees for making unpopular remarks was “like a threat.”

“It’s a weapon for the speaker to control everything,” he said. “‘If I don’t like what you say I will remove you from the committee.’ This is communism. This is socialism. This is Gestapo tactics.”

Mr. Díaz said he would wait to hear back from the ethics committee before deciding whether to pursue legal action.

Mr. Yeger, in a speech before the Council’s vote to remove him from his committee, also invoked his right to free speech.

“What I said remains a fact. Of course there are Palestinian people, but there is no state of Palestine,” Mr. Yeger said. “That’s not really my opinion, but even if it were, it would still be my right to say so. That’s the official position of the United States government.”

The City Council may have legal cover, though: Mr. Johnson has characterized both changes as part of a re-evaluation of committee assignments that is within the Council’s purview.

“It’s not a punishment,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s a loss of confidence that these individuals should stay in the positions that they are in.”

Linda Sarsour, a New York City-based Palestinian-American activist, agreed.

“He can have any views he wants on Palestine but he can’t serve on a committee that’s supposed to serve all immigrants if he doesn’t believe a certain group of immigrants exist,” Ms. Sarsour said of Mr. Yeger. “It was a symbolic removal, but it sends the message that we are not going to let people step on our community.”

Even while defending their right to make the remarks they made, Mr. Keating said the councilmen’s comments could be problematic. “The reality is when you make comments like this, it makes you less effective as a legislator,” he said.

Mr. Johnson was recently confronted with another controversy. The Committee on Standards and Ethics opened disciplinary proceedings against Barry Grodenchik, a Queens councilman accused of sexual harassment.

Mr. Grodenchik took to Twitter to deny wrongdoing and to ask that Mr. Johnson not remove him as chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee, arguing that his removal would be “excessive punishment that is harmful to this body.”

Mr. Johnson said any decision about Mr. Grodenchik’s chairmanship would have to be made by the Committee on Standards and Ethics, but he removed Mr. Grodenchik from the Council’s informal budget negotiating team.

And in a sign of how seriously the case is being taken, the Council hired Carrie H. Cohen, a former federal prosecutor and assistant state attorney general who led the prosecution in the corruption case against the former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, to prosecute Mr. Grodenchik.

“It’s been a difficult few months,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we live in a time when things that were once tolerated are not tolerated anymore.”




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