The city of Los Angeles has decided to pay $215,000 to settle a case brought by a man who sported a Ku Klux Klan hood at a city meeting. The man filed a lawsuit against the city for violating his right to free speech who after he was ejected from the meeting. Michael Hunt of Venice brought the suit against the city claiming that when he was booted from a 2011 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Department Board of Commissioners his constitutional right to freedom of speech was violated. He attended the meeting wearing a KKK hood and a T-shirt with profanity and a racial slur referring to African Americans.
Hunt, who is black, was warned about his clothing at the meeting. Former commissioner President Barry Sanders informed him that his clothing breached the city’s rules of conduct and decorum and that he would be ejected if he did not remove the hood and the “offensive signage.” According to the lawsuit, when he did not remove them officers escorted him out of the meeting and cited him for disturbing a public assembly. The incident was not the first time Hunt wore the hood. In 2009 he donned it at a City Council meeting, prompting the meeting to adjourn. The city did not enforce the citation so Hunt was not obligated to pay, but he felt he was wrongfully arrested. He charged the city of Los Angeles with violating his First Amendment rights and his right due process by blocking him from speaking at the meeting.
The recent settlement was considered a win by Hunt’s attorney, Stephen Rohde. He believes rules of decorum should not be a tool to silence people who are not actively disrupting a meeting. He said the settlement signifies that the city is held accountable when civil and First Amendment rights are violated.
Councilman Bernard Parks explained that paying $215,000 to the hood-wearing Hunt was the best way to avoid what could have amounted to costly legal fees if the suit had gone to trial. The city of Los Angeles had recently paid about $600,000 in legal fees in a separate free-speech case. The two plaintiffs were only awarded $1 each when the judge ruled their rights had been violated, but the legal fees were high.
A report by City Attorney Mike Feuer said government agencies can legally employ rules of decorum to curtail disruptive speech and abusive language, but the disruption must be so severe that it renders the agency incapable of conducting its public business. Witnesses did not feel that Hunt’s clothing caused such a disruption, the report added.
The report also stated that witnesses thought Hunt’s outfit was slightly confusing and distracting but did not warrant his removal from the meeting. According to Rohde, Hunt has worn the same hood and shirt various meetings to turn the tables on a city government he deems to be “engaging in discrimination.”
Los Angeles paid the $215,000 to the KKK hood-wearing Hunt to avoid higher fees, but this is not the first time he has gone head to head with the city and won. In 2009 a jury awarded him $254,286 when he challenged the vending restrictions the city placed on the Venice Boardwalk. His $340,000 legal fees were also paid by the city.
By Brandi M. Fleeks