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Offensive drawing targeting LA city councilman raises issues, challenges of free speech

A racist drawing directed at Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson prompted Wesson and others on the council to denounce recent cases of public comment that they say cross the line.

The drawing depicted a person hanging from a tree, a burning cross, and a hooded Ku Klux Klan figure holding a noose and a sign using the n-word in referring to Wesson, who is black. 

The councilman said he's had enough.

"You don't threaten a black man that way," Wesson said at a press conference Thursday. "In fact, you don't threaten anyone in this country that way."

The drawing was made last week on a comment card, which those who want to speak before the council and its committees fill out before public hearings and meetings.

The incident is raising broader issues about civic discourse at City Hall, where free speech is clashing with some council members who feel attacked or threatened and constrained in carrying on city business.

“Hate speech is not acceptable," Wesson said after the press conference. "For so many years, people like myself have fought to bring this country forward.”

City officials say the man who wrote the card is a well-known heckler. Wayne Spindler of Encino was arrested for making criminal threats, and has since been released on bond.

The council's ability to cut off members of the public who display rogue behavior is limited.

A man sued the city after he was kicked out of a meeting in 2011 for refusing to take off a Ku Klux Klan hood. He claimed his free speech rights were violated; the city settled the suit two years ago. 

Loyola Marymount political scientist Fernando Guerra said City Hall discussions in Los Angeles have become more heated since the settlement, which he believes emboldened hecklers.

"There are more of them now attending," said Guerra, who heads Loyola Marymount's Center for the Study of Los Angeles and is also on KPCC's Board of Trustees. "They are speaking on more issues. And their speech is further inappropriate."

Guerra distinguished the hecklers in question from ideological activists, for example, the Black Lives Matters activists who have recently disrupted police commission meetings.

"The gadflies don't have an ideology. They are all over the map," Guerra said.

Other City Council members on Thursday complained about the tone of the heckling taking an ugly turn. Council member Nury Martinez talked about sexist overtones; council member Paul Krekorian, who is of Armenian ancestry, said he's even been subjected to anti-Armenian slurs.

“We have gotten into a place in this country where no one feels any shame or compulsion from saying the most outrageous things," Krekorian said.

The incident targeting Wesson comes at a time when public discourse is generally becoming coarser, said Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

"The discourse has become much more impulsive, short, and hurtful all over," Levin said.

Levin said this is a phenomenon that precedes the 2016 presidential campaign and candidates like Donald Trump.

He linked it at least in part to social media, which "has created a situation where we are more commonly in communication in an echo chamber with those we agree with," Levin said. "And when we diverge, insult takes precedent over truth finding...the insult has replaced discourse and debate,  and I think that is a general theme."