Venice Beach Boardwalk vendor Michael Hunt has not held back in expressing to the Los Angeles City Council his opposition to the city ordinance regulating vending on the west side of Ocean Front Walk, known as the Boardwalk, in Venice.
Hunt, who has sold shea butter on the Venice Boardwalk for five years, has been attending City Council meetings for months, where he has continuously expressed frustration with the vending ordinance that went into effect on the Boardwalk earlier this year.
The ordinance prohibits vending of items on the west side of Ocean Front Walk that are not inherently communicative and have more than nominal utility apart from their communication, such as housewares, articles of clothing, oils, incense and lotions.
When speaking to City Council during the public comment period, Hunt has sometimes used a racial epithet in protesting the Boardwalk vending regulations that prohibit him from selling shea butter — made from the nut of an African tree — which is used to treat various skin disorders.
But the City Council placed more restrictions on public comment actions at meetings by unanimously approving new “rules of decorum” August 1st.
Since the Boardwalk lottery system was enacted last year, Hunt said he has been arrested 25 times for selling a product which, according to the ordinance, is not inherently communicative and has more than nominal utility apart from its com- munication.
While some City Council members said they were offended when Hunt used the racial epithet (the “n” word), Hunt said he was not directing the slur toward anyone but merely using it to describe what he calls the “injustice that has taken place” on the Boardwalk.
“As soon as I use that word everyone listens and starts paying attention to what I’m doing there,” Hunt said.
Hunt said he has spoken out at City Council meetings to try to fix the problems of the vending ordinance so that he and others can get back to selling their products legally.
“It’s all about work,” he said. “We don’t want to be there [at meetings]. I need to be taking care of my family.”
Hunt is not the only Venice Boardwalk figure who has been using unusual methods to get his message across to Los Angeles City Council members. Matt Dowd and a man known as “Zuma Dogg” have also expressed their opposition to the Boardwalk regulations in different ways, such as rapping and shouting.
City officials said the new decorum rules are intended to suppress “disorderly or boisterous conduct” at meetings, such as the utterance of abusive language, whistling, foot-stamping or other acts that may disturb the orderly conduct of council meetings.
Under the new rules, all comments are to be addressed to the council as a whole and not to individual members, unless in response to a question.
According to the rules, speakers will not be able to make comments that are personal or slanderous to council members, or utter loud, threatening, personal or abusive language that may disturb the orderly conduct of council meetings.
The new rules also prohibit signs and banners inside the council chamber. All persons in the audience, unless addressing the council or entering or leaving the chamber, are to remain seated during meetings.
Any speaker who violates the rules of decorum will receive one warning before he or she is ordered to leave the meeting, according to the rules.
City officials said the city is legally allowed to impose the rules of decorum because the rules target disorderly behavior and apply only to speech that is disruptive at meetings.
But Hunt claims that the rules will affect his free speech rights, referring to a time when the microphone was cut off after he uttered a racial slur.
Venice Beach vendor Dowd defended Hunt, claiming that by cutting off the microphone, officials were restraining Hunt’s speech and not his behavior.
“They cut off the microphone — how can that be behavioral?” Dowd asked.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer said the City Council rules of decorum have caused her some concern as to whether speakers will now be restricted in terms of what they say instead of what they do.
“We’re concerned about the rules and how they will be applied,” Helzer said. “Our First Amendment rights are very precious.”
Helzer said that to ensure that the rules are not unconstitutional, they need to be enforced in a way that does not restrict speech, but restricts disruptive behavior that could impede the City Council from conducting its business.