Politics

Boston City Council passes ordinance restricting protests outside residences

The proposal now heads to Mayor Michelle Wu's desk.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu passes a small group of demonstrators as she departs her home Jan 25. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Protest Law

Boston city councilors on Wednesday passed an amended version of a controversial ordinance filed by Mayor Michelle Wu late last month that would restrict when protesters can hold demonstrations outside private residences.

The 9-4 vote arrived after months of early morning picketing outside Wu’s Roslindale home, where protests initially voiced opposition to COVID-19 mandates issued by Wu early in her administration.

The scene has continued to play out though, despite the rollback of the city’s public health measures. Wu’s sought-after and criticized vaccine mandate for city employees was also blocked by a state Appeals Court judge. (Her administration filed an appeal to that decision late last month.)

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And since, other city officials have been the focus of similar protests, including Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and Council President Ed Flynn.

All have lamented the impact the demonstrations have on their neighbors. Some officials have outright condemned the tactic as harassment, especially given the unrelenting nature of the now daily routine for Wu.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to protect the quality of life of our residents and prevent them from becoming captive audiences in the privacy of their own homes,” Arroyo said Wednesday, shortly before the council vote.

Flynn expressed concern for how the noise generated from such demonstrations impacts the rest and sleep of nearby residents.

He asked colleagues to picture babies, seniors, and students who are unable to get needed rest because of the disturbances.

“There has to be some civility, some respect for neighbors,” he said. “And I think this compromise is fair.”

The law bans protests that are directed toward a specific residence between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

The latest version includes amendments that clarify language within the law and that lowers the civil fines for violating the ordinance, according to Arroyo.

Wu’s proposal sought a $100 fine for the first offense and $200 and $300 fines for subsequent offenses. The council’s version sets fines at $50 for the first offense, $150 for the second violation, and $300 for the third, Arroyo said.

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The ordinance now heads to Wu’s desk and will take effect when she signs it.

Supporters say the ordinance is “narrowly tailored” and offers needed and reasonable protections to help preserve privacy while not infringing on First Amendment rights. Under the law, demonstrators can still make their voices heard outside homes 12 hours a day.

But the council has expressed mixed feelings on the proposal since Wu first filed it.

Councilors Frank Baker, Erin Murphy, Kendra Lara, and Julia Mejia all voted against the ordinance on Wednesday.

Mejia and Lara previously voiced concern for how the regulation could potentially be used disproportionately against demonstrators of color.

Baker said although he disagrees with the protesters’ decision to target the mayor’s home, he thinks councilors are “edging in on the right of free speech” with this law.

“Because it’s happening to one person now we’re going to change the rules,” Baker said. “I just think it’s totally wrong.”

He also lamented an apparent lack of support from fellow councilors after he said he was targeted at his own home last year.

In 2020, Baker voted against a non-binding measure expressing council support for a moratorium on evictions during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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He has said fireworks were set off close to his home following the vote, and he and his family received constant harassing calls, calling him a “scumbag.”

“No body gave two sh**s about my family,” Baker said.

Councilor Kenzie Bok said in contrast to Baker’s points, she sees the law not as a reaction simply to Wu’s sole experience, but as a way to address a “consistent pattern” in recent years.

“We (as elected officials) absolutely need to hear what people are saying, but at the same time, we’ve got neighbors who, you know, have a right to their sleep at seven in the morning,” Bok said.

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said what’s happening outside the mayor’s house is not protest, it’s “abuse and verbal assault.”

“You said you wish that we did that for you when it happened to you,” she told Baker. “So do you wish for this to happen to protect someone or not?”

Opinions in the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting were also tense: Flynn ordered two members of the public to be removed from the council chamber after they interrupted the meeting on separate occasions.

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