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Boston City Council approves protest restrictions proposed by Mayor Wu

Mayor Michelle Wu passed a small group of demonstrators as she left her home in the Roslindale neighborhood earlier this year. The group was protesting the vaccine mandate in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Following months of near-daily antivaccination demonstrations outside the Roslindale home of Mayor Michelle Wu, the Boston City Council on Wednesday adopted a controversial proposal to further restrict the hours when protesters may target private residences with their demonstrations.

The hotly debated measure was introduced by Wu, who has framed the consistent, early-morning ruckus as harassment, a feeling many of her neighbors in the usually quiet part of the city share. But critics of the new rules, including several who routinely picket outside the mayor’s home, say the restrictions would unfairly curb First Amendment rights.

The council approved the measure 9 to 4, with Frank Baker, Kendra Lara, Erin Murphy, and Julia Mejia opposing. Wu is expected to sign it in coming days, making it law.

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The new rule would bar demonstrations at any private home between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. Currently, Boston’s restrictions on noise effectively restrict demonstrators from loud protests before 7 a.m. or after 11 p.m.

Under the new rules, there would be fines of $50 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense within a 12-month period, and $300 for a third and subsequent offenses. The fine structure would reset after 12 months. 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.

The ordinance has sparked strong feelings on both sides since Wu proposed it last month. The council meeting was interrupted twice by opponents in the audience. In both instances, President Ed Flynn called brief recesses while the protesters were ejected by police. One man, as he was escorted out, said the proposal was unconstitutional, predicting that people would successfully sue the city. The other person who was ejected declared that the measure was “just about Wu.”

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Baker, who opposed the proposal, said it is a direct response to demonstrations targeting Wu. He called it “totally wrong” and added that it would lead to more division.

Baker said he wished the council rallied to his defense when people were harassing him and his wife in 2020 over stances he took as a councilor.

“Now because this is happening to one person, we’re going to change all the rules,” Baker said. “We’re edging in on First Amendment here. We’re edging in on the right of free speech.”

Lara, another of the “no” votes, has in the past expressed concerns the proposal is aimed specifically at the protesters outside Wu’s home and could pose unforeseen problems.

“Ultimately, no matter how narrowly tailored, this ordinance could have unintended consequences for marginalized communities who use protest and direct action as a tactic to secure rights for themselves and resources for their community,” Lara said in a statement after the vote. ”We can’t guarantee that this will be enforced in an equitable way by the Boston Police Department and that’s a risk I was unwilling to take.”

Wu has argued the ordinance would preserve peace and quiet without infringing on protesters’ right to demonstrate. In an earlier letter to the council, her legal team asserted that the ordinance “will be in conformance with law.” For weeks, a small group of protesters who opposed Wu’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for city workers 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.

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Some of the pushback to her has been racist and misogynistic. Wu became the first woman and first person of color elected mayor of Boston last fall.

The battle over the vaccination mandate has also spilled into the courts, with her administration in February appealing a court ruling that blocked enforcement of the requirement for a trio of public safety unions.

The council vote backing Wu’s proposal came a day after she took aim at some of her protesters on social media, tweeting that the city will not “normalize harassment as acceptable behavior.” The tweet was in reference to a group that included North End restaurant owners upset with her administration’s outdoor dining rules for the neighborhood. On Tuesday, the group assembled outside Wu’s office in City Hall and chanted and criticized her for not speaking with them directly while she held a news conference on the matter.

“When members of this group have taken part in the yelling outside my house, bullied City staff & fellow restaurant owners — there is no right to get inside & shout down a press conference too,” Wu said in a tweet.

During the council’s discussion Wednesday, Councilor Kenzie Bok said she was comfortable that the legislation “is narrowly tailored enough to be well within Supreme Court precedent when it comes to the First Amendment.”

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Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who supported the proposal, said targeted harassment of any kind is wrong, adding that his mother’s home was recently targeted by demonstrators. This year, Boston has witnessed “targeted residential picketing in a way that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

“The idea here is to provide some grace to residents, to allow them some peace in the early morning hours because, frankly, they deserve that,” said Arroyo.

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said the measure was the right thing to do, saying “wrong to one . . . is wrong to all.”

“This is not protesting. This is harassment, this is abuse,” she said.

Flynn, who has been heckled by demonstrators outside his South Boston home in recent months, framed the matter as a quality-of-life issue.

“There has to be some civility, some respect for neighbors,” he said.

Last week, councilors asked Police Superintendent Gerard Bailey why protesters at the mayor’s house have not been cited for violating the noise ordinance or a state law against criminal harassment.

Bailey said the Police Department’s approach to protests is deescalation and diversion, but noted that last week, law enforcement had been in touch with West Roxbury court officials about noise violations, though they have not issued any citations. Bailey said the police have not issued citations for any noise ordinance violations at recent First Amendment-protected events anywhere in Boston.

And, he said, “if we had probable cause to arrest someone on criminal harassment, we would.”

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Wu could file a harassment order against the protesters, he added.

Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.