After a heated meeting in Point Breeze last month where anti-Semitic remarks were hurled at a developer, one member of City Council is calling for decorum - and wondering if it can be regulated.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes Point Breeze, wants the city to create "standards of conduct" for registered community organizations, the groups that host neighborhood meetings and provide input on development projects.
He said such rules would ensure that the registered groups "operate with a level of decency and order."
The ACLU worries that the rules would do something else - limit free speech.
"You can always throw someone out of the meeting if they are literally disrupting the meeting, not letting other people talk," said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "When you're talking about ... the words they are saying and the ideas they are conveying, you're talking about censorship."
Johnson's proposal comes on the heels of a community meeting where members of a vocal anti-gentrification group made several comments perceived to be racist and anti-Semitic against the developers, according to witnesses.
The group, Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, is one of the city's many registered community organizations, which under city law have a formal role in the zoning process. The groups, known as RCOs, have no official sway with the city - but developers are required to notify those groups of projects in their neighborhoods, and to hold at least one community meeting with group members.
Johnson's legislation, introduced last week, does not outline proposed standards of conduct for such groups, but directs the Planning Commission to create them. The councilman's bill says that if an RCO fails to operate within the standards, the commission could suspend or revoke the group's registration.
Steve Cobb, Johnson's director of legislation, said he thinks standards can be developed without shirking the First Amendment. For example, he said, the standards could outline subjects not relevant when discussing a development - such as a person's religion.
"We're open to discussing the details," Cobb said. "But the goal is to address what happened a few weeks ago. Because we have to do better than that."
Roper of the ACLU was less convinced the city could craft any regulations without limiting free speech. And she questioned how the commission would police conduct.
"That doesn't sound to me like something the Planning Commission is going to be eager to take on," she said.
In a short statement, a spokesman for the commission said only that the group was "reviewing the proposed legislation" and looking forward to talking with Johnson more.
Penelope Giles, who heads an RCO in Francisville, another gentrifying neighborhood, said she is not opposed to having standards - in theory. But she is concerned about how the city, which she thinks hasn't been proactive enough in addressing gentrification, would develop and enforce them.
"How is the hearing going to be held if an RCO is accused by some disgruntled resident?" she said. "There are a lot of things that need to be considered."
Albert Littlepage, who runs an RCO that has boundaries overlapping those of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, said that while he isn't opposed to the city adopting standards, he thinks some of the tension at RCO meetings can be addressed with education.
"When you have an area where people are feeling they're being forced out, there are going to be some people that come and may be angry and confused," he said. "They need to be given the right information and allowed to be part of the process. That will diffuse this to a degree."
The bill will likely have a hearing, the next step in the legislative process, this spring.