For many years, James Barnhart has carried his large signs into Bothell City Council meetings, addressing mostly what he sees as city corruption.
His signs have ranged from comparing the city to the former Soviet secret police, the KGB, to signs citing city codes about malicious prosecution.
He carried two of those signs into the Jan. 8 meeting, which slammed Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb and a police officer.
He was met at the doors of the Bothell Municipal Court with resistance when he tried to bring those same signs into the Jan. 15 meeting.
“I came in the front doors of the courthouse and Deputy Chief Henry Simon got out of his chair and asked me to go back out in the foyer,” said Barnhart, a longtime Bothell resident. “He said I can’t bring my signs in anymore unless it meets the council’s new protocol.”
Simon handed him a public comment notice, which outlines the council’s new policy regarding signage at council meetings.
According to the new guidelines: “No speech, comments or remarks that continue too long, relate negatively to other individuals, or are otherwise inappropriate (personal, impertinent, slanderous, rude or boisterous) will be allowed in the meeting.”
These restrictions also apply to all forms of speech – including signs, which are now limited in size to 93.5 square inches, or a sheet of letter paper.
In order to “avoid disruption and crowding in the meeting,” anyone bearing a sign larger than 93.5 square inches will be required to remove the sign from the meeting chambers, or they may be barred from the meeting if they refuse, according to the changes.
Barnhart told Simon he would comply, but “it was a bunch of crap,” he said.
Joe Beck, Bothell city attorney, said the council brought up the issue of signage during its recent council retreat and they decided to amend the provision in the protocol manual regarding public comment to include signs.
He said the manual outlines visitor rules, including that remarks to the council should be limited to three minutes. However, there was no provision for any other kind of speech.
“Signs were not allowed under the protocol manual,” said Beck, noting that Mayor Lamb approached him to discuss the issue and that the council also took up the issue during a couple open meetings. “He was torn because he didn’t just want to come down on people and be heavy handed on what was allowed in the protocol manual. So ultimately what (the city) came up with was allowing some form of signage because we didn’t want to limit people with buttons on their lapels or even small signs coming to the meeting.”
Barnhart believes the new policy violates his freedom of speech.
“I’ve been going in there a long time with my signs and no one has ever banned me,” said Barnhart. “My signs are just exercising my free speech rights – they have never caused a disturbance.”
He said carrying a smaller sign to the meeting or even speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting doesn’t have the same impact.
“During the public comment portion, Mark Lamb is so intimidating and can cut you off easily that you can’t always get words out,” he added.
Barnhart is also outraged that the council made the changes without the public’s input.
“The council can’t willy nilly go off like Adolph Hitler into the mountains – it ain’t happening,” he said. “They’re trying to pull a fast one, it’s garbage.”
However, Beck said the provision is not a freedom of speech violation. Under state law and the Open Public Meetings Act, the council is required to hold open meetings and the public has the right to attend, but council meetings are not free speech forums, like a more traditional place, such as a public street.
He said the law is clear that while people can attend the meetings, they do not have the right to comment unless the council allows that.
Beck noted that carrying a large sign is analogous to “people shouting in the council chamber.” He said the new policy will help the city maintain civility during meetings.