Fort Worth City Council meetings are no stranger to strong opinions.
While the topics vary, two faces are a consistent presence in nearly every council meeting. Bob Willoughby, who has regularly run for office in District 5, has been attending and speaking at meetings since 2013. Adrian Smith, who most recently ran for mayor, has also been regularly attending meetings for years.
Now, the two men are banned from attending council meetings in person, Willoughby until January and Smith until February. The city of Fort Worth cites repetitive disruptive behavior by the two men as the reason. Willoughby and Smith’s repeated conflicts with council members culminated at an Aug. 22 meeting, which featured yelling, threats of violence and expletives.
“Adrian Smith and Bob Willoughby’s restrictions are the result of cumulative infractions and disruptions,” Preethi Thomas, a communications specialist with the city, said in a statement. “It could result in a criminal trespass arrest.”
The Aug. 22 meeting reflects a trend of increasingly unruly public meetings. Both Smith and Willoughby have been asked to leave or have been forcibly removed from council chambers over five times this year.
The city isn’t alone. Marshals forcibly removed a man from a Fort Worth ISD board of trustees meeting for using lewd language Aug. 22. The increasing level of conflict at public meetings also reflects national trends.
The fair and orderly management of meetings is the responsibility of both government officials and the residents who sign up to speak, said Bill Aleshire, an Austin-based lawyer who specializes in open government and public policy.
“I think (government officials) should treat everyone with courtesy,” Aleshire said. “But, as a fellow citizen, I don’t think you should go down there and create an environment that is so hostile that your fellow citizens would feel uncomfortable coming down here because of the way you’re acting. So, it’s a mutual responsibility.”
Fort Worth’s struggle reflects national trends
Across the country, heightened disruption at public meetings has resulted in more restrictive rules for public speakers. It has kicked off a national debate about how government entities can best respond to disruptive speakers while honoring the public’s right to address their elected body.
In July, the mayor of Greensboro, North Carolina, proposed banning speakers who disrupt meetings from attending the next three council meetings in person, which could grow to a six-week ban.
Some Greensboro council members said the change would unfairly punish other speakers for the behavior of a few, while others said the behavior of some speakers prevents others from feeling safe expressing opinions at meetings, according to the Greensboro News & Record.
An investigation published by ProPublica in July identified 90 incidents of violence at school board meetings in 30 states beginning in the spring of 2021. At least 59 people were arrested or charged for disrupting school board meetings over an 18-month period, according to ProPublica.
There is precedent for a small group of residents’ abuse of open government laws leading to sweeping restrictions enforced on everyone, Aleshire said. In Texas, the Legislature tightened provisions for open records requests, allowing government entities to charge for records and set time limits on residents seeking information.
“I’m very much in favor of people rebelling and speaking truth to power, I love it,” Aleshire said. “But we really have to be careful that we don’t end up having the laws weakened because it appears that they’re stopping the progress of public meetings.”
Conflict disrupts Aug. 22 meeting
Both Willoughby and Smith signed up to speak on Aug. 22 for consent agenda items, which is the portion of the agenda that Fort Worth City Council members can vote to approve all at once. Both of the men’s comments were cut short after council members interrupted them, saying they were off topic.
Conflicts broke out between Willoughby and another attendee, Cliff Sparks, who could be heard yelling “touch me again” to Willoughby outside the chambers. While Smith was escorted out by marshals, he was heard calling the mayor a slur, an incident he later said was out of his character.
Reasonableness of meeting rules at core of conflict
The bans were the result of “cumulative infractions and disruptions,” according to communications specialist Thomas.
In Smith’s letter, City Manager David Cooke and City Attorney Leann Guzman cite an Aug. 8 council meeting when Smith was escorted out and began yelling in the hallway, pausing the meeting. In Willoughby’s letter, the city cites nine instances when Willoughby allegedly violated the city’s code of conduct.
Fort Worth’s code requires public speakers to adhere to a code of conduct that includes refraining from addressing the audience or staff, keeping comments within three minutes and only commenting on the relevant agenda item — except during public comment meetings where residents can speak on any topic, as long as it’s relevant to city government.
State laws forbid disorderly conduct, which includes using profane language or unreasonable noise in a public place, and disrupting a meeting or procession by interfering with the meeting verbally or physically.
“City staff has demonstrated great restraint not to arrest you for your disruptions,” Cooke and Guzman said in the letter addressed to Smith.
The city is required to comply with state laws when conducting public meetings, too. The state amended its government code in 2019 to ensure that members of the public be allowed to comment on an item on the agenda before or while the item is approved by a governing body.
Smith and Willoughby claim that council members have been repeatedly violating their First Amendment rights by cutting off their microphones before their allotted three minutes is over.
“The public has a right to criticize policies, procedures, programs or services of the city or of the action or omission of the city council,” Smith said. “How clear is that? This is (the city’s) language. I didn’t write it.”
After reviewing the video of the Aug. 22 meeting, Aleshire said he observed the men to be on topic with no reason for the council to cut off Willoughby and Smith and remove them from the podium. Not allowing them the same opportunity to comment as other residents could be considered discriminatory.
The Council’s Rules of Procedure are “narrowly tailored” to ensure city leaders are able to conduct an orderly meeting.
“The enforcement of those rules are necessary for the council and for other people who come to the meeting to conduct business,” Guzman said in a statement.
State law then allows government entities to create “reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body under this section,” which covers restrictions like time limits. It also forbids the government from prohibiting public criticism of the governmental body.
“What (Willoughby) was doing in terms of questioning or criticizing city programs or contracts or or even the mayor, saying we need a better mayor, he has a right to do that,” Aleshire said.
The question a judge would ask in evaluating the city’s action banning Willoughby and Smith is whether the city is imposing and enforcing a reasonable restriction on their speech by banning them from council meetings, Aleshire said.
Because the men are still able to comment remotely, it seems to be a balanced response, Aleshire said. City staff and council said allowing the two men to call into council sessions honors their First Amendment rights, while ensuring council business can move forward without disturbance.
“As someone who has fought in combat for our rights, I know first-hand the sacredness of our constitutional rights,” said District 4 council member Charlie Lauersdorf, who represents parts of northeast Fort Worth. “Thankfully, (Smith and Willoughby) both are able to continue to exercise those very rights I speak of.”
Going forward, both Smith and Willoughby will be able to do non-meeting-related business in City Hall. However, Smith will have to be escorted to his destination by marshals while Willoughby can enter the building freely.
At a public comment meeting following the banishment, Smith called in to protest the ban saying, “Lawsuits are coming.”
Jim DeLong, a pastor and frequent council attendee, suggested the city attorney handle enforcing meeting rules.
“You guys are leaders … When we talk to you, I can share concerns and I should be able to do it civilly. Instead of making it a council member or mayor against a person, we have a city attorney who says this is the law,” DeLong said.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.