Vehement City Hall Gadfly Ordered to Stay Away

By Anne Lowe

A frequent visitor to—and critic of—San Jose City Hall, perceived as a threat after repeated aggressive behavior,  has been ordered to stay well away from city officials despite his effort to challenge the ruling under the First Amendment.

William Garbett, accused of threatening city officials, mustwas ordered by a superior court judge to remain 300 yards away from the mayor, council members, city clerk and City Hall itself. Garbett appealed the order, arguing that the order violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. Justice Franklin Elia, however, writing for a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal, found that the First Amendment does not protect Garbett in this case.

As reported in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise:

Garbett, a retired electronics technician, has been attending public meetings, often to complain about garbage service or appeal property tax assessments, for over 30 years, earning him the title of “San Jose’s most enduring gadfly” from a local weekly. He once ran for the city council, and is known for sometimes speaking on more than 10 items at a meeting.

His penchant for repeat appearances, the newspaper reported, led a former mayor to invoke an obscure rule allowing the chair to limit a persistent speaker to a single item at a meeting. That effort was later dropped as undemocratic, according to the report.

In seeking injunctive relief, however, the city complained of conduct by Garbett outside of meetings. A deputy city clerk, who, according to the trial judge, shook and cried as she recounted the episodes, testified that Garbett had complained about his treatment by the city and expressed sympathy for Charles Thornton, who killed six people at a council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo. months earlier.

A police officer said he spoke to Garbett about the incident, and that Garbett claimed Thornton was “a good friend of his” and that the two had spoken about a month before the shooting. The officer said that as a result of the conversation, he insisted on searching Garbett before the defendant entered chambers for the next council meeting, and that he was “absolutely” fearful for the safety of the mayor and council.

Other city employees testified to conversations and encounters with Garbett in which he would address them profanely; gesture wildly with his hands; and make references to multiple murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Timothy McVeigh. A police officer testified that that Garbett struck him in the chest with clenched fingers after a traffic stop.

Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Sharon Chatman ruled that the city presented sufficient evidence to justify relief. She ordered that Garbett remain 300 yards from the specified individuals and from City Hall other than while attending meetings, and that when attending meetings he enter through a specified entrance, submit to search before entering chambers, and sit in a specified row.

He was also enjoined from personally delivering documents to the City Clerk’s Office.
Elia, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was well within her discretion in imposing the injunction.

“The First Amendment does not help appellant here,” the jurist wrote. “The right to free speech is not absolute or unlimited.”

While Garbett claimed he had no intent to threaten anyone, Elia explained, it is the reasonable perception of the person on the receiving end that determines whether the statutory requirement of a credible threat is met.

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