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Man in Klan robe prompts L.A. council to walk out, weigh limitation on public comments

July 15, 2009 |  3:43 pm

Los Angeles City Council chambers went dark early today after an African American man wearing the distinctive white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan tested the limits of his 1st Amendment rights — and council members' patience — by refusing to remove his hood while addressing the council.

It was at least the second day that Michael Hunt, who recently challenged the city’s vending ordinance in federal court as a violation of his rights, had worn the outfit to the meeting, leading council members to seek advice from the city attorney about their legal options.

Hunt submitted a card to speak during the standard public comment period and was called to the microphone by Councilman Dennis Zine, who was presiding officer.

“Mr. Hunt, you’re going to have to remove your hood,” Zine told Hunt twice. “Are you refusing to remove your hood? ... Mr. Hunt, we can’t hear you. Remove your hood.”

“No, this is part of my 1st Amendment privileges,” Hunt replied. Zine turned to the lawyer who sits on the dais to advise members during meetings.

“His getup that he’s wearing arguably has some 1st Amendment protection as symbolic speech, as distasteful and misguided as it is,” Deputy City Atty. Dion O'Connell said.  “However, it’s not an issue of anonymous speech because he’s taken his hood on and off throughout the meeting. If his wearing that causes a disruption, then he could be told to remove it.”

By that point, a number of council members had forced the adjournment of the meeting by leaving the chamber in protest. They included Councilman Greig Smith and the chamber’s three African American members: Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson.

Council President Eric Garcetti rose to state for the record that Hunt could keep the hood on. “I want to say as a human being, I wish you wouldn’t have it on, but that is your right to keep it on. We did lose quorum because council members left, so we do not have public comment, we do not have a meeting right now.”

Later Garcetti said the council had a “very narrowly tailored policy that is one of widest ones, I would say in the country — we definitely err toward the side of free speech.”

Perry said she couldn’t bear to look at Hunt. Parks called the display offensive. “This person has used the N-word in the past, and that has led to the council changing its rules,” Parks said. “No one who is in attendance, at home watching on Channel 35 or online should be subjected to his indiscretion.”

Wesson said he and Smith are working on a policy to tighten the rules on decorum in the council chambers, possibly by adopting a more rigid policy like that of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The interchange with Hunt, Wesson said, may have accelerated that process. “Whenever I see that, it send chills down my spine and then to have it worn by him is triply offensive. How could an African American in his right mind use that just to attract attention,” Wesson said. “Over the next 24 hours, I will be having discussions with whoever I can to find out legally just how much flexibility we have, because I would prefer to never see that again in my life.”

In April, a federal jury awarded Hunt $264,000 after he sued the city challenging its vending ordinance. The city has filed an appeal. Hunt could not immediately be reached for comment.

-- Maeve Reston