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Amid calls for Gaza ceasefire, Richmond City Council restricts public comment

Richmond Police SUV and protester holding "FREE PALESTINE" banner
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
A protester carries a "Free Palestine" banner on Monday, March 11, as several people are arrested for blocking a portion of the southbound lane on Interstate 64 in Richmond.

The changes include required topic descriptions and limits on poster size, placement.

Read the original version of this article on Next City.

In the six months since Hamas’s deadly attack and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, more than 100 municipalities across the country have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

Protesters in Richmond have arrived at recent public meetings with “Ceasefire now!” signs and their hands covered in blood-red paint. Some council-meeting attendees have gotten there three hours early to ensure a seat or a spot during public comment to call for city officials to back a ceasefire ordinance. Yet, as these debates continue, Richmond and other cities across the country have begun implementing new restrictions during public comment.

City Council’s vote has some concerned these restrictions will limit pro-ceasefire speakers and public organizing by protesters.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, told VPM News/Next City the new restrictions highlight the “difficult balancing act” facing municipalities.

“The bigger question for these cities is, do they really want to be making it more difficult for citizens to engage with elected officials?” Farnsworth said. “It's a key measure to get a sense of the public's pulse, so to speak, if you can have these vibrant comment periods.”

Farnsworth also said it’s a delicate balance between local government needs and sensing the public’s pulse.

“We live in very contentious times and there are growing numbers of people who are not,” he said, then paused, “... well-behaved when it comes to interacting with their fellow citizens.”

Although officials have not directly connected the changes to ceasefire protests, the policies were implemented shortly following activists organizing at public comment periods in several cities.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, city staff drafted new restrictions, including limits on the comment period and limiting comments to focus on items included on the council agenda, after a demonstration prematurely ended a meeting. In Aurora, Colorado, councilors last October passed a resolution condemning Hamas’ deadly invasion of Israel. Following resident outcry over their silence on the Palestinian death toll, Aurora's council eventually voted to bar the body from weighing in on international events.

“We’re not the United Nations,” Councilor Curtis Gardner said, according to Denver7. “We’re not Congress. And, I don’t feel it’s our role to make performative statements on world events.”

Cleveland City Council is weighing rule changes — including limiting speakers to commenting on a single agenda item — after weeks of public comments criticizing city officials over their support for Israel.

“What we've experienced the last three weeks is outrageous, unacceptable,” Councilor Mike Polensek told WKYC. “Public comment is supposed to be just that — to come in and voice your concerns about Cleveland issues, Cleveland concerns.”

Across the Canadian border in Surrey, British Columbia, the council has temporarily banned members of the public from attending council meetings in person — a direct response to anti-war protesters’ disruptions.

In three U.S. capital cities — Richmond; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Salt Lake City — the policy changes emerged soon after activists began calling for a Gaza ceasefire during public comment periods.

After initially voting it down, Charlottesville City Council on Monday passed a resolution calling for an Israel-Gaza ceasefire. Harrisonburg was the first locality in Virginia to pass a similar ordinance in late February.

Dave Cantor
VPM News
During the public comment portion of Richmond City Council's March 25 meeting, every speaker addressed a potential ceasefire resolution.


On March 11, Richmond City Council voted unanimously to adopt several changes to its public comment procedures.

In Virginia’s capital city, signs are no longer allowed to be posted on council chamber’s walls and doors, and signs brought into meetings cannot be larger than 14-by-11 inches (For comparison, a piece of printer paper is 8.5-by-11 inches). Previously, speakers who signed up to offer public comment were required to provide a brief description beforehand. Now, they must offer a “detailed and complete” description that “provides the clerk with an understanding of which city agency the comments pertain to or affects.”

In practice, this has resulted in speakers writing incomplete sentences, like “In support of a ceasefire resolution.”

The new rules will also prevent people from speaking for 90 days if they sign up to speak but fail to appear without canceling by noon on the day of the meeting.

Richmond City Council President Kristen Nye told VPM News/Next City that these changes were based on suggestions from City Attorney Laura Drewry to help meetings run more smoothly.

“As she was sitting in on the meetings, she made the suggestion, ‘There are some things you all could do to make things flow a little more naturally, more efficiently and make things clearer for the public,’” Nye said.

Drewry first publicly proposed the changes during a Feb. 5 organizational development meeting, following several disturbances and audience outbursts over a ceasefire resolution.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Richmond City Council has said it will not move forward with a resolution as it is not protocol to weigh in on matters that don’t involve the city.”

On the evening that public comment changes were voted through, Richmond resident Allan-Charles Chipman connected it to the ongoing debate over a Gaza ceasefire resolution, which has been dominating the council’s public comment periods.

“If it is not in your spirit to make a statement around what is going on in several global impacts in the world, I would say, let us at least not complicate those who have found the courage to speak,’” Chipman told the council.

Mark D. Wood, a community activist and Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor, said people calling for a ceasefire come from a wide range of backgrounds and do not represent a single organization or population.

"If I was a City Council member, I'd be looking out and saying … ‘This really represents a broad range of people in the city who are all converging around this demand for an end to the violence and for the establishment of equal rights,’” said Wood, who has spoken at council meetings in favor of a ceasefire resolution.

Raleigh, North Carolina

Following a public comment period in January that lasted more than 3.5 hours as 217 residents spoke about the war, city councilors in Raleigh, North Carolina, began considering new restrictions that were directly linked to the Gaza protests.

“I want to make sure we separate that in this conversation from every public comment moving forward,” Councilor Christina Jones said, according toWRAL. “When we move beyond the resolution discussion … [to] make sure we’re not penalizing residents in the future because we’re having a hard time now.”

According to the city of Raleigh’s website, it has adopted new changes to its public comment procedures, “aiming for more predictability and clarity for speakers and Council.”

The new restrictions, which took effect March 12, include a cap of 165 speakers for its second Tuesday primetime session and 50 for the third Tuesday afternoon session. Other changes included moving up the deadline for speaker sign-up and reducing speaking time as the number of sign-ups increases.

According to ABC 11, the Feb. 13 City Council meeting in North Carolina’s capital was the fourth consecutive meeting when a ceasefire resolution dominated public comment.

Over 100 people were scheduled to speak a week after Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin announced the city would not pursue a ceasefire resolution due to the council’s inability to reach a consensus. According to The News & Observer, in a surprise vote on March 6, Raleigh City Council was split 4–4 on a ceasefire resolution — though it wasn’t included on the agenda. Three councilors alongside Baldwin voted against the resolution.

“In the past few months, it’s become abundantly clear that we cannot just get over this,” Councilor Mary Black, who raised the issue, said prior to the vote. “We cannot wait out in silence. We cannot ignore the people who have eagerly demanded us to do one thing: Vote on a ceasefire resolution.”

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City adopted a broad peace resolution on Feb. 20 that fell short of advocates’ calls for a ceasefire resolution. Within weeks, City Council fast-tracked major changes to its public input process, giving residents little notice and no opportunity to offer feedback.

On March 5, Salt Lake City Council revised its formal meeting agenda to consider an amendment to public comment rules. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the council rearranged the agenda so the changes were considered before the public speaking period, preventing constituents’ input. The following day, the changes were voted through unanimously.

The Tribune reported that the agenda item to revise the comment policy period appeared with no drafted language or materials for the public to review until March 6, the day of the vote. The topic was discussed at a public work session held prior to the formal meeting that day, but did not provide an opportunity for public comment.

Asked about the sudden changes, the council chairperson’s response was blunt.

“Because we can,” Chairperson Victoria Petro told the Tribune. “Because we know what’s coming down the pike in terms of projects and time that we’re going to have to manage. Because this is when everyone was available and ready to handle it.”

Members of the work session went on to discuss, among other things, the potential of limiting the number of commenters, requiring groups to designate a spokesperson to address a particular issue and the possibility of implementing a residency requirement.

Councilors denied that there was an effort to silence residents, telling the Tribune they were not “trying to do something dark” and “there is no free expression being stifled here.”

Hartford, Connecticut

Meanwhile, in Connecticut's capital, residents and lawmakers have called City Council’s changes to public comment “maddening” and “unconstitutional.”

On Feb. 13, more than 140 speakers turned out for public comment before the meeting, the Hartford Courant reported. Many pro-Palestine speakers were present to call on Hartford leaders to introduce a ceasefire resolution — as nearby localities Windsor and Bridgeport had recently done.

Public comments typically take about an hour and are held in person, according to Hartford's charter rules. But this time, they were held over Zoom due to a snowstorm — and residents said the meeting was plagued by technical issues and mismanagement.

According to the Courant, some who signed up were unable to speak, while others noted non-residents were prioritized over locals to speak about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Hartford resident Sarah White said many Hartford residents, particularly those supporting a ceasefire, were denied the opportunity to speak.

Councilor Josh Michtom said he heard from constituents that the council president’s staff had claimed that only three people would be allowed to speak in favor of a ceasefire resolution.

“I let [the] council president know that a content-based limitation on public comment was unconstitutional,” Michtom told the Courant.

Several would-be speakers, including Michtom and his wife, also reported being unable to unmute themselves or experiencing connectivity issues.

“This raises questions about accessibility,” Hartford resident Kerri Ana Provost told the Courant. “Council president scolded would-be speakers for not unmuting, or not doing so fast enough, even though they were not all given this capability. … This would have been an absurdist comedy if it were not so maddening.”

Barry Greene Jr. is the Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Reparations Narratives.