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Free speech concerns in Bellevue political sign controversy

“I wasn't disrupting the meeting,” Kan Qiu said, “so yes it is real troublesome for elected officials to do such a thing." (Photo: KOMO News)

BELLEVUE, Wash. - Call it a sign of the times when controversy erupted over political messages being held up during a city council meeting on Monday night.

At issue was how city leaders responded, and whether it amounted to a free-speech crackdown.

Most of the political signs were size of a sheet of paper and people held them up through most of the meeting. However, when it came down to a controversial final vote, the mayor ordered the signs be put away.

“Please put it down,” said Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak during the meeting. “I ask you, please put the sign down so it is not visible."

That request seemed unfair to many people in the audience, including Kan Qiu, who actually had a security guard walk over to him after the mayor spoke.

“I wasn't disrupting the meeting,” Qiu said, “so yes it is real troublesome for elected officials to do such a thing."

The mayor said one sign was particularly troublesome because it seemed to target the councilmember casting the swing vote on a controversial decision over homeless shelters operating in the city. The sign said “We voted you in we can vote you out.”

"You cannot dictate the content of those things,” Qiu said.

The mayor said he may have made a mistake with that request, and just asks that people address the full council.

“In hindsight, you have the right to do that,” Chelminiak said. “But again, we just ask people, working in a civil manner, to address to the full council."

Moving forward, the mayor said political signs will be allowed and he fully supports the First Amendment.

According to legal experts on signs and free speech, the bottom line is that ground rules for public comment must be set ahead of time.

For example, it would be legal to ban all signs from a meeting, but signs can't be singled out based on the message. That is known as "content discrimination," which the courts have ruled as unconstitutional.

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