Public Comment

Commentary: SuperBOLD Wins James Madison Award

Friday March 28, 2008

EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 18, the Society of Professional Journalists held their annual Freedom of Information banquet in San Francisco. Recipients included Berkeley’s own Daily Planet for Community Newspaper and SuperBOLD for Citizens Activism. Following is the text of SuperBOLD’s acceptance speech, delivered by Gene Bernardi. 


The SuperBOLD Steering Committee, Jim Fisher, Jane Welford, Peter Warfield and myself, Gene Bernardi, was very surprised, but delighted to be the recipients of the Citizen’s Freedom of Information Award. Super Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense is actually an offshoot of BOLD, a group of Berkeley Public Library employees concerned about the radio frequency ID tags attached to all the library’s books and materials. SuperBOLD took on the more overt activities that the library employees avoided for fear of retaliation from the then current library director. 

In the process of watchdogging the Board of Library Trustee meetings, we discovered violations of the Brown Act; for example, routinely using a lottery system to restrict the number of speakers. This same method, also used by the Berkeley City Council, was not only a constraint on the freedom of speech of many members of the public, but also it prevented the opportunity for each item on the agenda to be addressed by the public, a clear violation of the Brown Act. The success we have had, so far, would not be possible if the First Amendment Project had not taken our case and threatened to sue the City of Berkeley. Additionally, the coverage by the Berkeley Daily Planet was essential to building public awareness. 

The city dispensed with the lottery and Mayor Bates began “experimenting” with public comment procedures. In some respects, the new procedures exceeded our expectations. Now, public comment is allowed for each item on the agenda. However, the mayor is arbitrary and selective in his implementation of the new procedures. After a year of Mayor Bates’ “experimenting,” SuperBOLD pushed for the codification of the new procedures. Unfortunately, the resolution approved by the City Council gave short shrift to public comment on those community concerns not on the agenda. Such comment is now allowed to occur after the City Council meeting has been adjourned, clearly a violation of the Brown Act. 

Another concern we have is the cordoning off of the Berkeley City Hall with police to prevent members of the public from entering the City Council meeting when a large number of people is expected to attend. This, instead of arranging for a larger venue! 

On Feb. 12, the night the City Council was revisiting the Marine Recruiting controversy, there were at least 135 police from the Alameda County Sheriff and the Oakland Police Departments in front of City Hall in addition to the Berkeley Police cordon. This is hardly conducive to “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is SuperBOLD’s position that an environment conducive to free speech, and a truly participatory democracy, cannot be wholly achieved in Berkeley without a lawsuit. 

The struggle for free speech continues and we hope this award will inspire the City of Berkeley to open its meetings to greater public participation and that it will inspire others to join us in this struggle.