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Councilors Question Legality, Motivation For New Hateful Activities Bill

Ariel Worthy
Pittsburgh City Council discussed a bill that Councilor Ricky Burgess introduced that would bar "hateful activities" from city employees.

City councilors decided on Wednesday to hold off on voting for a new bill that would add "hateful activities" to the city's code of conduct, and to see what the city's law department has to say about it. Councilor Ricky Burgess introduced the bill earlier this month, but colleagues on council said they need to know whether the bill, which could arguably limit speech rights, is constitutional.

There were also concerns that the bill is a reprisal for the outcome of an ugly fight for City Council president earlier this month. Burgess himself has said that the bill would target "cyber-lynching, nasty activities, unsubstantiated rumors," that could target "an African American, maybe a member of council, who wanted to progress in some way." He said he was speaking hypothetically.

But on Wednesday his peers expressed doubts. "To see what happened during that time, it was painful to watch," said Theresa Kail-Smith, who emerged as the Council president after neither Burgess nor District 5 Councilor Corey O'Connor could gain a majority. "I know you think that legislation is the way to do things, but I don't think you can legislate morality. I think you have to have a conversation." 

Kail-Smith told reporters after the meeting that behind the scenes, there had been accusations of homophobia and racism on council, but she declined to provide details. Some of the comments were made online, she said. 

"We absolutely do not know where it stems from, who started these rumors," she said. "But it should have been stopped. We should have been able to handle this internally." 

She said she has started scheduling meetings for councilors to talk out their animosities.

Councilor Anthony Coghill said that the rough-and-tumble nature of politics often involved unfair attacks. And he worried about provisions in Burgess' ordinance in which city employees who felt targeted by attacks could file a report with the city's Ethics Hearing Board. The board could conduct an investigation and recommend discipline.

"I agree with most of what's in the packet, but this page right here about the city employees and turning them in to the Ethics Board, to me it seems like an infringement on free speech," Coghill said. "This seems like it's a direct result from the presidency, and this particular page I cannot support." 

Ultimately, council voted to hold the bill until it can consult with the law department on the bill's legality.

After the meeting, when asked by reporters to specify the rumors that he kept alluding to, Burgess said "you have to talk to them" but would not specify who he meant.

"My focus is on moving forward and I think all of us can agree that these activities are wrong, mean-spirited, hateful and probably racist," he said. "The real goal of this is to make a city that is inclusive." 

Burgess said since he has been councilor, he has spoken with black residents who said they have been the subject of racist attacks. 

"They have given me horrifying examples of having been intimidated, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped," he said. "I am not speaking just for myself, I am speaking for all of them." 

Burgess said that council has previously passed laws whose legal basis was unclear, in order to make a statement. As a recent example, he cited legislation that would ban the use of certain firearms and accessories within the city. 

"We knew the gun bill was probably unconstitutional, but we made it a moral imperative," he said. 

When asked if his bill was a response to the outcome of the council presidency, Burgess stared at reporters and blinked rapidly.