Disrupting an Oyster Bay Town Board meeting could lead to charges of disorderly conduct under new rules of decorum that have already prompted questions about First Amendment protections and a potential court injunction.
Individuals removed from a meeting at the direction of its presiding officer could be prosecuted, according to the new rules, which town officials said are needed to maintain order. But Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas expressed doubts about whether violations of the rules would meet the legal bar to prosecute.
"We are ensuring that individuals are not allowed to hijack meetings and intimidate the public from attending as they try to turn responsible town board meetings into a circus," Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino wrote in an email.
The previous rules only permitted the removal of disruptive people and allowed the Town Board to overrule the presiding officer. The new rules also expand the kinds of behavior that could lead to removal to include failing to stop recording a meeting in a disruptive manner and refusing to put down signs or banners deemed to interfere with the meeting. Previously, the rules only allowed ejection over speech deemed "offensive, insulting, threatening, insolent, slanderous or obscene" or someone who became "boisterous."
In such cases, the town attorney would ask the Nassau County Police Department to charge the individual, and then it would be up to the district attorney’s office to prosecute, town spokesman Brian Nevin wrote in an email.
In a statement, Singas said a charge of disorderly conduct, a violation under state law, requires proof of intent to disrupt or cause inconvenience or alarm and that any charges brought to her office for prosecution under Oyster Bay’s rules would be subject to "scrupulous review."
"These rules appear to provide for charging a board meeting attendee if the presiding officer believes they violate vague and subjective rules of decorum, which lack required elements of the charge of disorderly conduct," Singas said in her statement. "The First Amendment strongly protects speech petitioning the government, and laws that seek to punish those exercising their free speech rights must be scrutinized very carefully."
Town Attorney Frank Scalera wrote in an email that the town agrees with Singas about the importance of protecting the First Amendment and that rules will protect the public.
The Town Board voted 7-0 to adopt the new rules at its Oct. 6 meeting.
The Press Club of Long Island urged the board to rescind the new rule, writing in a letter to Saladino that "First Amendment rights are not subject to the discretion of the town supervisor."
"The rule puts journalists in the position of choosing between doing their work effectively and facing a punishment of up to 15 days in jail," the letter said.
Jonathan Clarke, the Farmingdale-based attorney for blogger Kevin McKenna, who has been repeatedly called out by Saladino and the board for purportedly disruptive behavior, including a lewd gesture in 2018 and an obscenity at an August meeting, said he is seeking a federal injunction to stop the rules from going into effect.