Abusive behavior excluded, officials always should welcome people’s voices.
The School District of Beloit is the latest public body to wade into the treacherous waters surrounding how and when it may be appropriate to limit citizen discourse.
Let’s say this up-front: As an organization with a long and proud record of standing up for free speech rights, it is acknowledged there are limits. Most famously, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1919’s Schenk v. United States case, wrote that “free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
Likewise, as America has become more sharply divided, news reports abundantly have chronicled the disintegration of public meetings across the country as angry citizens have interrupted, shouted down and sometimes physically threatened officials. Recently, in this space, we reported on an incident in Burlington, Wisconsin in which a school board meeting was disrupted and police had to quell a hostile crowd.
Fortunately, Beloit and Rock County councils and boards have avoided matters getting that far out of hand. Considering, however, the cultural tensions that prevail in 2021 America it’s understandable that public bodies want to have appropriate policies in place.
In our view, there are two primary principles that should guide every school board, city or town council, county board and others if members choose to consider public participation policies.
First: Citizens own the government, not the other way around, and public officials always should err on the side of allowing people to express their views on matters of interest.
Second: There are limits. Hostile, threatening behavior or language should not be tolerated. Profanity need not be allowed, nor degrading personal attacks.
What constitutes threatening behavior, or degrading personal attacks? Let’s reference another U.S. Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart, who said, regarding how to identify whether something is pornographic, “I know it when I see it.” So it is with the subjective part of identifying threats or personal attacks that fall outside the bounds of propriety.
The test, of course, is whether members of a given public body truly enforce reasonable limits or instead use policy to push away criticism or silence people from whom they don’t want to hear. Hiding behind policy to sanitize unwanted discourse is wrong, every time.
Citizens have responsibilities, too. And for the most part the problem isn’t too much citizen participation, but too little. Citizen indifference inevitably breeds bad government. So if you have chosen to tune out what government does in your name, look in the mirror before complaining.
For those who do approach a board or council to sound off -- which is a good and desirable thing -- remember to keep it brief, to the point, civil and reasonable in tone. Doing so makes it impossible for public officials to stifle your free speech without exposing themselves as biased, capricious and unwilling to listen.