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Mayor Wu proposes limits to protesting at private residences

Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston passed a group of demonstrators as she departed her home in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston in January.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston, whose quiet Roslindale neighborhood has become the site of vehement early-morning protests over her vaccine mandate, on Monday proposed an ordinance that would restrict picketing targeted at individual residences between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Since early January, a small group of protesters who oppose Wu’s vaccine requirement for city workers have gathered outside her home, banging drums, blowing whistles, and shouting starting at 7 a.m. Wu has said she tries not to take the protests personally, but laments the disruption for her neighbors and family.

According to the city, the ordinance would not affect marches or protests passing through residential areas, just demonstrations that are directed at individual residences or residents. It applies to any residence, not just the homes of elected officials.

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Wu’s proposal highlights the difficult balance that officials face between respecting protesters’ First Amendment rights and maintaining a good quality of life in city neighborhoods, a tricky calculation that is already confronting the police assigned to guard the mayor’s home. And her proposal comes amid a broader national trend of protesters confronting people in power where they live and attendant discussion about whether such demonstrations should be limited. The debate has sparked moves in other cities and legislation on Beacon Hill that would prohibit demonstrations within 100 yards of elected officials’ homes.

If passed, Wu’s proposal would effectively delay by two hours the permissible start time of the noisy demonstration. Currently, Boston’s local restrictions on noise effectively restrict demonstrators from loud protests before 7 a.m. or after 11 p.m.

The protesters outside Wu’s home stop shouting after the mayor departs for City Hall. Since she typically leaves before 9 a.m., the ordinance could mean the protesters have no opportunity to loudly demonstrate while she is still home.

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Protests are also supposed to remain quieter than 70 decibels, a threshold neighbors say the demonstrators outside Wu’s home often exceed.

Wu, a graduate of Harvard Law School, said during an interview Monday afternoon on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” that her proposal stays on the right side of the “fine line” between protecting free speech and preserving community peace. Residents have many opportunities to make their voices heard, she said, but the protests outside her home have gone too far in disrupting the lives of her and her neighbors.

“When the goal becomes less about having the right to be heard and share your views and more about repeatedly taking away a community’s sleep every single day at 7 a.m., just to ensure that you can try to verge on breaking the will of that community, that is harassment,” Wu said. “And Boston is better than that.”

A number of police officers are stationed outside Wu’s home during the morning demonstrations, and in January, the protesters were directed to stop using noise amplification devices. But no arrests have been made, and the protesters have not been directed to leave the area, as police officials say they work to balance demonstrators’ free-speech rights with the neighborhood’s safety and quality of life. Neighbors, and a number of elected officials, said they respect the protesters’ right to make their voices heard, but believe appearing outside Wu’s home crosses the line.

Courts have held that limited restrictions on the time, place, and manner of protests can be constitutional under certain circumstances, legal experts said. Restrictions on protests can be upheld in court so long as they are “ ‘content-neutral,’ e.g., not designed to suppress a particular viewpoint,” said Daniel Medwed, a professor of law at Northeastern University.

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Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the legality of Wu’s proposed ordinance will depend “largely on how it is applied and enforced,” as well as whether protesters have “adequate alternative means for ensuring that their views are seen and heard by elected officials.”

Governor Charlie Baker, who has also faced protests outside his Swampscott home, applauded Wu “for putting it on the table in Boston,” but stopped short of endorsing her specific proposal. He also spoke during a television interview aired on Sunday about the bill that would keep protesters 100 yards from politicians’ homes, saying it “could be” a good idea.

“The hard part here is figuring out some way to maintain the very public rights that people should have to protest, which I’m completely supportive of, but at the same time recognizing that private citizens, private residents, deserve their privacy,” Baker said Monday during a news conference at the State House. “For me, the most important issue here is not so much about whether or not somebody should be able to wake our family up at 6:30 in the morning with a bullhorn, which happened more than once. The real issue is, you’re waking up my neighbors. And they’re private citizens and they have rights, too.”

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Critics who have protested Wu’s vaccine mandate at her home and elsewhere took issue with the proposal.

“We The People have a Constitutional right to be heard. It is simple,” said the anti-vaccine mandate group Boston First Responders United in an e-mail. The group’s leader, Shana Cottone, is one of the organizers of the protests outside Wu’s home.

And Melissa George, a former corrections officer who lost her job with the state because she did not get the vaccine, slammed “selfish” politicians for seeking to restrict protests. She took particular issue with the bill that would keep protesters 100 yards from politicians’ homes.

“Our voices are not being heard and they only care about themselves!” she said in a text message to the Globe.

If Wu’s ordinance is passed, violators could be punished with a fine of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense, and $300 for the third or subsequent offenses.

Ed Flynn, the City Council president, signaled Monday that he supports the measure, saying in a statement that “Public protests at people’s homes must have reasonable limits.”

Acting Police Commissioner Gregory P. Long, whose department would be charged with enforcing the order, said in a statement, “People have a right to privacy and peace in their homes.”

Matt Stout and Danny McDonald of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.