Members of the public and some elected officials Monday pushed back on Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposal to restrict the hours when protesters may demonstrate at private residences, with some warning of First Amendment violations and raising the specter of lawsuits even as Wu’s administration insisted the measure was on solid legal ground.
Wu, whose quiet Roslindale home has become the site of near-daily 7 a.m. protests over her vaccine mandates, last month pitched a city ordinance that would bar demonstrations at any private home between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.
More than two dozen people testified at a spirited virtual hearing held by the Boston City Council Monday, with most speakers opposing the mayor’s proposal. Among them were several people who routinely protest outside Wu’s home in the early morning hours, who defended their right to be there and characterized her neighborhood as a crucial venue for voicing their dissent.
“Feelings are not facts, and rights are not negotiable,” said Shana Cottone, a Boston police sergeant who was placed on leave during an internal affairs probe after playing a leading role in organizing protests against Wu’s mandates. “Our rights to constitutionally demonstrate are not something that should be negotiated or legislated through ordinance.”
Some of Wu’s neighbors spoke to the other side of the issue at the hearing, describing the frequent protests as deeply disruptive to their morning routines.
The debate over Wu’s protest proposal spotlights the competing pressures facing public officials in this time of heightened political tension: respecting protesters’ First Amendment rights and maintaining a good quality of life in city neighborhoods. That debate, taking place across the country, has sparked moves in other cities as well as legislation on Beacon Hill that would prohibit demonstrations within 100 yards of elected officials’ homes. Courts have held that limited restrictions on the time, place, and manner of protests can be constitutional under certain circumstances. To be lawful, protest limitations must be applied and enforced equally, not weaponized only against demonstrators with a certain point of view, legal experts said.
Wu has argued the ordinance would preserve peace and quiet without infringing on protesters’ right to demonstrate. In a letter to the council, Wu’s legal team asserted that should it pass, the ordinance “will be in conformance with law.”
“Limited restrictions on targeted residential picketing are a lawful method of pursuing the significant governmental interest of protecting residential privacy, tranquility, and quality of life,” wrote Adam Cederbaum, the city’s corporation counsel.
But skeptics, including some members of the City Council, argued that Wu’s proposal seemed motivated by and targeted at the protesters outside her house in the mornings, not aimed equally at all demonstrations. Other councilors distinguished between the demonstrations outside Wu’s home and protests elsewhere in the city or against other elected officials, suggesting the current situation requires further restrictions.
“The demonstrations under the white mayors was professional, it was respectful. And the demonstration out in front of Mayor Wu’s home was personal, it was vindictive, it was mean-spirited,” Council President Ed Flynn said. “A lot of this has to do with Mayor Wu being a woman and Mayor Wu being a woman of color.”
The proposed ordinance is a long way from becoming law. City councilors will discuss its details in a working session before taking a vote on whether to adopt it or not. And several councilors expressed significant concerns about the proposal, warning that its enforcement could disproportionately impact communities of color and that it threatens an important democratic value.
“Protests are meant to be disruptive,” said City Councilor Kendra Lara. “And as people who are in power we don’t get to tell our constituents when it’s appropriate or when it feels good or when it’s best for us that they show up to protest.”
And she argued that while the ordinance does not specifically name them, it is directly aimed at the protesters outside Wu’s home.
“It is not content-neutral. It was written as a response to a specific kind of protest,” Lara said.
Despite the opposition, the ordinance appears to have a good chance of passing. Several influential members of the council argued in favor of its provisions, including Ricardo Arroyo and Flynn.
The protests against Wu have continued even as the city begins to roll back some of its COVID-19 restrictions. Just last week, Boston public health officials voted to rescind the city’s COVID-19 public health emergency on April 1 and took their first crucial step toward ending the mask requirement in city schools. A proof-of-vaccine mandate for restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues was lifted last month as the city’s COVID-19 metrics improved.
But Wu’s push for a vaccine mandate for city workers — the measure that has sparked perhaps the most vehement protests against her — continues. Last month, city authorities said they were filing an appeal of a court ruling that blocked enforcement of the requirement for a trio of public safety unions. The mandate has yet to be enforced amid the legal battle and other delays.
On Friday morning, protesters disrupted what was intended to be a light Instagram live appearance when Wu joined a public works crew fixing a pothole in Charlestown. What appeared to be at most a handful of demonstrators, some of whom held signs, showed up with a megaphone, chanting “Shame on Wu!”
The heckling continued as a crew shoveled asphalt into a cavity in the road. At times during the 11-minute livestream, the demonstrators’ voices drowned out Wu, who was asking public works employees questions about the work.
Among the shouts: “She doesn’t care about constituents!” “Fake smile Michelle, fake smile Michelle!” “Unmask the kids!” “You’re a carpetbagger from Chicago!”
The proposed ordinance would not affect marches or protests passing through residential areas, just demonstrations that are directed at individual residences or residents. If it passes, 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.
If passed, Wu’s proposal would effectively delay by two hours the permissible start time of the noisy demonstrations outside her home. 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.
Protests also are supposed to remain quieter than 70 decibels, a threshold neighbors say the demonstrators outside Wu’s home often exceed.
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