It’s common for observers of modern civic discourse to bemoan its coarseness. We maintain that the lack of civility is hardly unique to our times, but must acknowledge that the way we treat one another in the public square today often leaves a great deal to be desired.
Much of the energy and attention of Americans is devoted to the national level, and with good reason. There’s certainly enough transpiring in Washington, D.C., these days to keep us all on the edge of our seats (and, frankly, simply on edge).
But at its core, politics – as the old adage goes – is local. And the discussions and arguments we have over issues of neighborhood and community importance are often no less spirited or contentious as those that affect the nation.
That being said, we join the ranks of those who have raised concerns over the consideration or adoption of so-call “decorum ordinances” in two Rhode Island towns.
Exeter adopted its “decorum ordinance” in September, while Narragansett’s Town Council this month rejected a proposal that would have asked the town solicitor to draft a similar ordinance for consideration.
We are glad officials in Narragansett – which has been gripped by a fierce, divisive debate over the future of its public library – opted against further steps toward instituting such an ordinance. We hope officials in other communities, including those we serve, follow their lead if the time comes.
We agree with Steven Brown, the ACLU of Rhode Island’s executive director, who wrote in a letter to Narragansett officials that a “decorum ordinance” would have a “chilling effect” on residents’ willingness to speak out during public sessions.
“People should be on the lookout in their own communities for stealth ‘decorum’ ordinances like the one Exeter quietly passed,” an Oct. 9 tweet from the local ACLU chapter reads. “As Narragansett shows, speaking out can stop these troubling attempts to stifle public comment.”
Consider the language of Exeter’s ordinance, which was to serve as the template for Narragansett’s proposal. We find its provisions to be extremely broad and potentially damaging.
At first, what it prescribes appears reasonable – that attendees of public meetings “must observe and maintain civility, order and decorum.” From there, however, it states that “no person, member or attendee shall by statement, action, conversation, or otherwise, delay or interrupt the proceedings or the peace … or disturb any member thereof while speaking, or by refusing to obey the orders of the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission or its presiding officer.”
The most problematic passage then follows: “Any person making personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or who shall become boisterous while addressing the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission, or any member thereof, shall be forthwith, by the presiding officer, barred from further audience before the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission at that meeting, unless permission to continue is granted by a majority vote of the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission.”
How are remarks to be judged as “personal, impertinent, or slanderous”? At what point is someone’s behavior to be deemed “boisterous”?
It seems to us that, in essence, these highly subjective determinations are to be made almost solely at the discretion of the presiding officer – and thus the majority – of the public body in question.
The potentially negative consequences of this approach should be clear.
Indeed, the Exeter ordinance goes on to empower the presiding officer of the proceedings, through the sergeant-at-arms or other designate, to remove anyone found in violation of the measure from public proceedings.
As Brown writes in his letter, that provision grants the presiding officer “virtually unbridled power to cut off speakers and control the content of what is supposed to be an open forum for public comment.”
As we have expressed in this space before, it is our experience that most people who occupy city and town offices are well intentioned and community oriented. Disagreements are inevitable and politics are inevitably part of the equation, but most officials, we believe, understand the necessity and value of letting the community’s voices be heard.
That is by no means always the case, however. We have also seen our share of public officials and bodies behave badly, moving to squash dissent or retaliate against political opponents.
Like the ACLU, we acknowledge the rights of public bodies to place reasonable restrictions on public comment. We also urge all community members and officials to refrain from disruptive or aggressive behavior during meetings, and understand there are situations in which removal of someone from a meeting – or other such action – is necessary.
Such measures as the “decorum ordinance,” however, go much too far. Free and open discussion is too important to our process, especially at the local level – and the risks such a measure carries are far too great.