English scholar John Milton famously espoused the freedom to speak as the right that stands above all others, but with meetings stretching into the wee hours, Richmond's City Council is on the hunt for a little less speech and a little more policymaking.

With an engaged citizenry that regularly packs council chambers and a garrulous, combative group on the council dais, Richmond's marathon council meetings have reached new levels of lengthiness in recent months, with most running past midnight despite a 6:30 p.m. start time.

The July 17 meeting adjourned at 1:05 a.m., leaving a stack of agenda items for that evening unheard.

"We are not taking care of the city's business," said Councilman Nat Bates.

Councilman Corky Booze proposed a motion Tuesday to investigate free speech rights in public meetings. He said he is concerned by recent incidents, including times when Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has ordered police to remove disruptive residents from council chambers.

"My motion is we ask the city attorney to research this issue on freedom of speech and how far we can go without getting in trouble," Booze said.

But the debate quickly shifted to the interminable, argumentative and inefficient talkfests the council meetings have become.

"The content of speech cannot be regulated," said Mike Parker, a resident and activist who speaks at most meetings. "The problem comes when we talk about what a city council meeting is supposed to be and supposed to do ... Disruption is not freedom of speech."

The council approved Booze's measure, with McLaughlin and Councilman Tom Butt dissenting, to direct City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller to draft a report that outlines how conduct, including speech, can be regulated within council chambers.

Booze has loudly complained when McLaughlin has ordered residents, often Booze supporters, removed for yelling out of turn or making what the mayor considered threatening remarks.

"It is of great concern to me and many of my constituents that civil rights may have been violated by escorting members of the public from the Council Chamber and/or not allowing them to speak for the allotted time without interruption," Booze wrote in his staff report.

McLaughlin disagreed, and said Booze deserved most of the blame for dragging out meetings and provoking arguments.

"Frankly, this council is extremely dysfunctional. This item comes forward when I give so much leeway to speakers and to this council. I am very unhappy that this item came forward," she said.

Soon after, Booze and Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who have been bitter opponents since both were elected to council in 2010, got into a shouting match on the dais, forcing McLaughlin to recess the meeting and restore order.

"(Booze) thrives on chaos and dysfunction," Beckles said. As she left the chambers she called Booze "a liar" and"delusional." Booze chuckled.

Beckles did not return following the recess.

Goodmiller said he would provide direction on free speech issues to the council during a future closed session hearing.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers