The State Of Free Speech In San Bernardino County
Oft-arrested Hesperia resident keeps pushing against time limits to public comments.
By Martin Estacio
HESPERIA — At a June 2017 City Council meeting, Bob Nelson begins his public comment time by announcing he’s going to go over his allotted three minutes.
“You have no need to put a time limit on speech,” he tells Hesperia City Council members, whom he has characterized as being close to Nazis or “felonious domestic enemies” in remarks and in his newsletter, Ephemeral Press.
As Nelson, 81, a fixture at Hesperia City Council meetings, stands at the rostrum, he resembles a rumpled, retired college professor.
Sporting a blue suit jacket, tie and jeans on a lean frame, his long white hair is pulled back in a ponytail. His beard matches his hair in color.
As the timer’s red numbers tick toward zero, Nelson rails against meeting rules he describes as “evil” and that infringe on First Amendment rights.
At zero, the mayor says: “Bob, your time is up.”
“A cogent remark … I’m not finished yet,” Nelson answers.
The microphone is shut off. Nelson protests they have no right to shut him up. He stays put.
Two San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies approach from behind. Nelson asks loudly if he’s under arrest.
On meeting video, the conversation is inaudible, but Nelson is escorted down the chamber’s aisle. When he attempts to re-enter the chambers, he is arrested for disturbing a public meeting.
It’s a scene that has played out similarly at public meetings multiple times in Nelson’s life.
According to detailed records he keeps, he’s been arrested more than 50 times for disturbing a public meeting.
Usually, he spends a night in jail but ultimately faces no charges. Four times, however, a jury has found him guilty, court records show.
He now faces what could be his fifth trial, for charges alleging disturbance and resisting arrest. They stem from three separate incidents that occurred at Hesperia City Council meetings in 2017, including the one described.
Nelson shows no signs of letting the legal hassles slow him down. He still attends meetings and addresses council members directly.
His mission, he said, is to change the rules governing legislative bodies. In particular, he contends the three-minute rule limiting public comment and the five-minute rule limiting public hearing testimony are unconstitutional.
“I truly believe the most important moment for our rights to free speech is when we’re speaking at a public meeting, face to face with those people that control our daily lives,” he told the Daily Press.
Nelson first became instilled with civic passion as a young man when he enlisted in the Air Force and took an oath to support and defend the Constitution.
“I felt that way, I remember, at 17. I said, ‘Boy, that’s kind of permanent. That’s just something that everybody has to do,’” he said. “And now here I am defending the First Amendment.”
After serving 10 years in the military, Nelson moved back to Hesperia and worked as a systems analyst.
He started attending public meetings in 1970. In 1986, he became more active after what he perceived as a deceitful attempt by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission to build a subdivision in rural Summit Valley.
Nelson’s family owns a ranch there that his grandfather bought in the 1920s.
Labeled the Codevco Project, Nelson said the Commission was justifying its construction by including an “expired and explicitly voided zoning map for a city of 70,000” into an updated general plan.
Nelson vehemently opposed the subdivision. According to his arrest records, 1989 was his first arrest when he violated the five-minute rule speaking against it.
He said he became incensed when a former county supervisor was allowed around nine minutes to speak.
The incident started an itch with Nelson.
“I am pigheaded and when I get something upset in my mind, I’m not going to let go of it easy,” he said.
Since then, he and a group of critics have been arrested more than 160 times for reasons he lists from going over the time limit rule to “words from floor.”
The Brown Act, the law governing public meetings, allows legislative bodies to adopt “reasonable regulations” regarding the public’s ability to speak.
Nelson said he promotes a rule limiting time based on the number of people wanting to speak and time allotted for the meeting. Lawyer David Snyder isn’t sure that such a rule is practical, however.
In general, courts have found limits to be enforceable, said Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
“What legislative bodies can’t do is enforce that rule unevenly, and they can’t enforce that rule based on the viewpoints of the person who wants to address (them),” Snyder said.
Hesperia City Council procedures, which say the public must refrain from derogatory comments and avoid offensive, negative comments, could be open to legal challenge, Snyder said, since what is considered derogatory is open to debate.
City rules also prohibit “stamping of feet, whistles, yells, or shouting.” Snyder said a more appropriate rule would be prohibiting conduct that results in disorder or chaos, rather than singling out certain activities.
A representative for the City of Hesperia said their meeting policy is similar to that of cities across the state.
One of the targets of Nelson’s diatribes, Hesperia Councilman Jeremiah Brosowske, said, “Although I disagree with Mr. Nelson, I’m happy he actively shares his concerns with the Council.”
Until a possible trial, Nelson said he’ll continue to advocate for people who may need more time to speak on an important issue if they’ve never commented before.
He cites biblical history when asked why he believes the issue is so important.
King Solomon commissioned a survey of African tribes in the Middle East to understand what made them stay together and accomplish worthwhile things.
Solomon found one reason was because leaders received counsel from all its members, including “the feeble, the weak, and the people that don’t seem very worthwhile,” Nelson said, which led them to make better decisions.
“Listen to every voice, even the foolish voice, because God put them there for everyone to hear and you gotta listen to every voice.”