Evanston aldermen Monday directed the city’s legal staff to prepare amendments to the City Council’s rules that would restrict the display of protest signs at council meetings.

Aldermen said the displays of large signs and posters contributes to a hostile environment at the meetings that they claim discourages many residents from participating in the meetings.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, suggested recent uncivil behavior here can be traced to national politics and to a rise in gun violence.

“We’ve never seen such disrespectful behavior that comes out of the executive office as under the current administration” in Washington, Braithwaite said, “and some residents here are adopting similar behavior.”

Addressing the handful of residents who spoke against the proposed restrictions during public comment, Braithwaite said, “If you think your feeling of not being heard gives you the right to swear at and threaten members of the Council, then I really think we have lost our way.”

“Some members of Council receive threats on a regular basis,” he added. “And I think of the families impacted by Virginia Beach,” where a city employee killed a dozen people at a government office Friday.

“The Council Chamber is a very special place where we conduct the city’s business. All should be heard here without feeling threatened,” Braithwaite said.

During public comment, Mike Vasilko, of 2728 Reese Ave., claimed trust of city government among residents “is virtually nonexistent” and that the sign restrictions “would sever whatever trust is left.”

Lori Keenan, 2214 Colfax St., said trust has broken down between the Council and citizens “across the board.”

Mary Rosinski, 1729 Chancellor St., said, “People have had it up to the tops of their heads with this bullshit.”

And Carlis Sutton, 1821 Darrow Ave., said the sign restrictions would be an attempt to “intimidate free speech.”

But several aldermen joined Braithwaite in saying they had heard from constituents who felt intimidated by the hostile atmosphere at Council meetings.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “This should be a safe space for everyone, and people say they feel very intimidated and personally attacked when here.”

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said, “I have many residents that are concerned and interested about issues, but are intimidated by what they see” in the live cable broadcasts of council meetings “and stay home.”

Aldeman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “People are running a gantlet starting in the parking lot, through the anteroom and into the Council Chambers” if they don’t share the views of the crowd.

“The negativity and harassment that comes from the actions of some people diminishes our opportunity to have a discussion,” she added.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, “Posters don’t necessarily bug me,” but people in the anteroom, at the back of the Council Chamber “say they can’t see because of the signs.”

“We need to respect each other’s voice,” Fleming said, criticizing those who “scream at me or talk over me.”

For background on what form the restrictions on signs might take, see our Saturday story, “Council to discuss new decorum rules.” 

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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