In 2002, Robert Norse, a known local homeless activist, rendered a Nazi style salute from the audience at a March 2002 council meeting to protest the mayor’s cutoff of another speaker. The presiding mayor didn’t see the salute, but it was brought to his attention by another council member who asked that Norse be evicted from the meeting. When Norse refused the mayor’s eviction order he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped and Norse sued. This tape of the incident was relied on by a 3 judge panel in siding with the city. The case has now been taken by a 11 judge panel of the 9th U.S. circuit Court of Appeals. It could reach the Supreme Court.
Was Norse arrested because of an expression of dissent in his Nazi salute or because he disrupted the city council meeting? I am no fan of the Nazi salute as to its meaning as mode of hate speech or dissent in general. To me the salute represents the murder of 11 million Jews and non-Jews. That’s me. I recognize that Norse was not using it as statement of ethnic or religious hatred but as statement of contempt. Regardless, in this country, he has the right to express his beliefs in the former or the latter.
The city is taking the position that any gesture whether verbal or non-verbal not made at the podium during the designated comment time is a disruption in violation of council rules subjecting the disruptor to removal. A 3 judge panel sided with the city in their right to enforce rules that silence the audience unless they are at the podium.
In reviewing the video, it seems clear that Norse was removed specifically for making the Nazi salute. While the city council has the right to regulate their meeting to prevent disruption that prevents the administration of government, they are taking time, place and manner to the ridiculous extreme. They are going beyond what is necessary to ensure everyone is heard and the meeting proceeds and moving into the silencing of political expression. One may ask where we draw the line? We should not be drawing it at non-verbal expressions of dissent. This is inconsistent with the 1st Amendment. The decision of the 3 judge panel should be reversed on those grounds.