Every now and then one of the three-dozen or so local governments does something that irritates a percentage of the citizenry.
Unlike some countries where you get shot for protesting the government, in the good ol’ USA you can go to your local government’s public meeting and give its officials a piece of your mind.
In so doing, said irritated citizens often cite the First Amendment when claiming they have an absolute right to say anything they want to their government, whenever they want and for however long they want.
Too many Americans these days think that to understand the Constitution all you have to do is read it, but that’s actually just the start. You also need to read a couple of thousand Supreme Court decisions.
In our system of checks and balances, it’s the Supreme Court that says what the Constitution means, not us. And the Supremes have said you have no absolute right to free speech.
Some speech is criminal, for instance advocating direct action to overthrow the government or inciting riots. And you can face severe penalties, both civilly and criminally, for saying things that are untrue that cause harm – the proverbial shouting of “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
But the most common restrictions on free speech are so-called time, place and manner restrictions.
For example, you may feel the Holy Spirit deep down in your soul and it compels you to shout Hosannas at all hours of the day, but try shouting them at 2 a.m. in a cul-de-sac in Oro Valley and you’ll quickly find yourself shouting Hosannas in the OVPD pokey.
Other than state-mandated public hearings, public bodies have no duty to allow anyone to speak at their meetings. Most do, though, because that’s the American way; we believe in democracy and the right to present our grievances to our government.
However, if a public body allows the public to speak at its meetings, it must have a set of clearly defined rules for that speech that are evenly enforced.
Most public bodies only allow public comment at specific times on the agenda, usually during public hearings, or at the acquiescence of the public body during discussion of other agenda items that are not public hearings or during what’s commonly called “Call To The Audience,” in which any member of the public may address the body on a matter of public concern.
That last part is key. You can’t get up and talk about how the corns on your feet are killing you and they’re keeping you up nights. That’s not a matter of public concern and the presiding officer of the meeting can rightly silence you and tell you and your corns to be quiet.
The public body can dictate how long Call To The Audience will last and for how long each speaker can speak. The reason for these restrictions is that the rest of the public has a right to have a functioning government that can decide matters of public concern in a timely and judicious manner. Without these restrictions, dissenters could essentially filibuster the meeting, preventing the body from conducting the public’s business.
One person’s right to free speech cannot interfere with another person’s right to have their taxes raised.
Where public bodies go off the rails is the application of the reasonable rules limiting speech at public meetings. Too often the thin skins of a body’s members get in the way, especially when it comes to specific criticism of them.
Most people will put up with criticism of the nonspecific “government” but when you put a name to it – the mayor or the school board chairman, for instance – it gets personal and uncomfortable.
Therefore, most public bodies have a restriction on “personal attacks” but that restriction is ambiguous and so its enforcement is often arbitrary.
It would be wrong for a member of the public to call the mayor an SOB; that’s a personal opinion, not a matter of public concern, a violation of decorum (and perhaps even a violation of the public peace) and can be rightly restricted.
But if a member of the public says the mayor is an awful mayor and then cites a number of grievances why he believes so, that is a matter of public concern and should be allowed, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to listen to.
It might be personal, but that’s the price public officials have to pay for serving the public good. It’s not always going to be adoration and adulation.
Sometimes you have to take the raspberries with the raves.