by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
There is a lawyer joke in here somewhere about lawyers suing to get more time to speak or how someone should sue to force lawyers to talk less. Potential jokes aside, the issue in Feld v. City of Orange was an interesting one. In Feld, plaintiff challenged a municipal ordinance that reduced, from ten minutes to five minutes, the time members of the public could speak on certain matters at city council hearings. Plaintiff claimed that this ordinance violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Spoiler Alert: He lost. But the issue and the decision are nonetheless interesting.
Feld was the latest chapter in litigation that has been raging between plaintiff, a lawyer, acting on behalf of himself and his parents' business, and the City of Orange for years. (In a prior decision, the Appellate Division noted that plaintiff considered himself a "zealous gadfly" and a "radical barrister.") At some point during this long-running battle, the city adopted an ordinance "that reduced the time from ten minutes to five that individual members of the public could speak at City Council meetings on general issues, agenda items or second readings of ordinances before adoption." The city council claimed the change was necessary because "council meetings can extend late into the evening or early into the next day" and this "discourages, if not precludes[,] a fair opportunity to be heard by other members of the public." The city council further claimed that, "without appropriate and rational limitations, the rights of all public speakers [would be] curtailed and undermined." The city council also noted that other municipalities limited the time for speaking during public meetings to five minutes.
The underlying issue in Feld involved plaintiff's objection to the city council's adoption of a resolution that allowed the mayor to sign a lease and option to buy a building owned by the YWCA of Orange, which was in bankruptcy. He challenged the resolution when it was before the city council, and, after it passed, filed a 257 paragraph complaint in lieu of prerogative writs seeking to have it invalidated. As part of this complaint, he also challenged the rule reducing the amount of time members of the public could speak at city council hearings. After filing his complaint, plaintiff filed an order to show seeking, among other things, to restrain the city from enforcing the five-minute rule while the lawsuit was pending. The trial court heard oral argument on the order to show cause, and took testimony from a witness on behalf of the city, who testified that the rule was necessary to "administer the Council meetings more efficiently," and that it was an attempt to "make sure that all of the comments are heard and that everyone gets a chance to talk."
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