Does Amarillo’s ‘No Clapping’ Policy Pass Constitutional Muster?

A constitutional law expert says the city council can create rules to keep order at meetings, but banning a common method of expression like clapping may cross a line.

By Michael MarksApril 20, 2018 12:48 pm|

At Amarillo City Council meetings, clapping is a sign of rebellion. And citizens are called out for doing it.

Mayor Ginger Nelson recently enforced the city’s no clapping policy.

“Would you sir please stand? I’d like to ask you a question, please stand. Would you please, Mr. Billups, please stand? You have the choice. You may abide by the clapping policy which means you will not clap again or you can choose to leave now. You sir, what do you choose? Leave now, or abide?”

The man she was talking to was Kip Billups, who was removed from a city council meeting in early April for clapping.

As Nelson explains it, she instituted the no clapping policy at city meetings to make sure that people don’t feel intimidated, and that they are able to speak freely. Now, if you agree with something at a public meeting in Amarillo, you can silently raise your hand.   

But it’s a policy that some believe may not be completely consistent with the First Amendment. Dale Carpenter, chair of constitutional law at the SMU Dedman School of Law, says that a city council is allowed to establish content-neutral rules that promote the orderliness of meetings. What they can’t do is target individuals or points of view. Additionally, Carpenter says, policies that keep order must allow citizens a way to make their views heard.

“Among the many ways that people make a view heard is to signal their assent or dissent to something that is being said, through, for example, clapping,” Carpenter says.

While the Amarillo clapping policy is content-neutral in theory, Carpenter says it appears to be enforced in a way that’s “targeted at certain ideas,” Carpenter says. “In application, it could be unconstitutional.”

The problem with only allowing citizens to express an opinion by raising their hands, Carpenter says, it that only positive opinions are provided for.

“Maintaining decorum, maintaining orderliness, maintaining the ability of others to speak – those are certainly perfectly reasonable and constitutional objectives,” Carpenter says. “But city councils around the country weigh these interests… In ways that allow a certain amount of expression that’s verbal, or through clapping, but at the same time, have met those objectives.”

 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.