Home > Crank, Cultural Movement, Editorial > RE: Restricting public comment at local government meetings

RE: Restricting public comment at local government meetings

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Reason to restrict

Quite a few comments came in yesterday concerning the public comment to do. To start, one among them questions why comments are now restricted on MyWHaT:

I’ve been away from town several weeks recently, and haven’t been reading your column as regularly as before. I’m sorry that you are no longer leaving Comments after the column. I really appreciated reading individual comments the way the person wrote his opinion. In a way, not still printing them after your blog is a way of restricting public comment.

Fair question. As I’ve said before, too many comments were coming in that repelled further comments and it became a management issue. * There’s also evidence in support of getting rid of comments due to the “nasty effect” of negative comments overly influencing the ability to apply reason and common sense (M.J.) and causing polarization unnecessarily (NYT).

Previous MyWHaT: Why most public meetings suck

As far as yesterday’s post on the matter of public comment, and its limits, at government meetings, I didn’t expect the response I received, both in support and disagreement. It turned into more of a crank than expected, but it honestly troubles me  how public engagement is viewed in Traverse City.

People want to be involved, not treated as spectators who get to chime from the bleacher seats after decisions have been made. How public comment is run already sets itself up to be that way.

Reader comments

At least one City Commissioner, Mary Ann Moore, thinks my criticism was incorrect:

You’re off on this one, Gary. Elisa was rude, loud and warned several times that she had to limit her remarks to the subject at hand, which was parks use of Brown Bridge Trust Fund monies. The mayor also informed her that she could speak on her subject at the open comment period at the end of the meeting. Estes has been very strict about the time limits on all speakers. Personally, I would have been a bit more lenient, but she was treated no differently than others by the mayor. Had she waited five to seven more minutes, she could have talked on any subject. I told this to Brian from the R.E. but, like you, he disagreed with me.

I understand the defense, but it’s certainly debatable that she was not on subject. In addition, it is far too easy to ask a very narrow question and thus limit discussion. In the case of last Monday, the benefit of the doubt goes to the public–too close for a definitive call.

Another reader questions if the incident really is a First Amendment issue:

I don’t think the First Amendment gives you the right to speak in any given context. Fox News refuses to give me a two-hour program to air my opinions. That has nothing to do with my first amendment rights. Neither do I think limits on public comment are a first amendment issue. It’s an open government issue. She is free to say whatever she wants, however she wants on her own time–that’s what the first amendment guarantees her. Being in a meeting means she’s subject to some limitations. Question is, are the rules they’re enforcing reasonable within the framework of open meetings law, not the first amendment.

Agreed that it has more to do with the rules of the City Commission (PDF), whose language is standard fare: “The presiding officer shall control the order and duration of any public comment subject to appeal…[they] have the authority to limit and terminate any public comment that becomes disruptive, unduly repetitive, or impedes the orderly progress of the meeting.

As was said on Facebook, the one with the gavel will always win…However, it is still a first amendment issue–that’s where it begins and ends.

The courts have reviewed similar incidents throughout the country, and the results tend to favor the public’s right to address their local government. It is certainly permissible for government bodies to restrict speech, in content and tenor. My understanding, as a layperson, is that they can do so in the name of preventing the impediment of government business or even to prevent a high degree of offensiveness aimed at causing disruption. Even in allowing for restrictions, the threshold for disruption is best lightly applied.

In Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa, the 9th Circuit Court gave guidance“actual disruption means actual disruption. It does not mean constructive disruption, virtual disruption, nunc pro tunc disruption, or imaginary disruption.

What I pull away form this is that positive, informed, and helpful public comment is a wonderful aspiration, but is less likely to occur as a result of a rigid control of the discourse than an open, transparent, and more tolerant approach.

Over on Facebook, where a small debate arose, Meika hits the key point on this issue:

But the First Amendment doesn’t only protect nice words from people who have their facts straight – because who would get to decide on that? Set up the rules for public comment so a single person can’t take over a meeting, but threatening to call the police? That doesn’t sound like democracy.

Calling the police for such a minor event does nothing to add civility to the pubic process and as I chimed yesterday, does little to encourage public engagement by others who might be less extroverted.

People, both citizens and officials, all bring human baggage to the table; the rules are only as effective as the people participating. Public comment is an honorable tradition and has always come with the risk of offending some leaders’ sensibilities.

So be it, the push and pull, the tension of community goes on.

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* I have a few financial supporters, but this is still a project of passion more than paid work, and I simply don’t have the energy to watch and make judgement calls all the time. When people make a comment now, they will typically get a reply from me and likely have all or part of their comment posted in a post like todays. Those who wish to enter in a more unfiltered debate are invited to make comments on the MyWHaT Facebook. If they have a lot to say, they can also start their own blog and ping back to MyWHaT articles. As well, I’m always available to meet for coffee. 

Use the comment section below or through this page to send us a message, on any subject, anytime, anyhow.  Comments will be sent to author and potentially used in future posts. Please highlight whether you’d like you’re name published with your comment. 

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of writers previously published here or any of the organizations, committees, commissions or other affiliation the authors may belong to, unless so stated.

  1. Gabe Talaga
    April 16, 2013 at 9:31 am

    I am in the middle on this one. On one hand I am all for public comment and believe the City Commission, or any committee for that matter, should offer a comfortable setting for the general public to express their concerns about issues that effect our community. On the other hand, if a member of the public is being unruly, off topic, and not contributing to the debate in a meaningful way, I can see why the individual running the meeting would choose to have him/her removed.

    All that being said, calling the police was far too extreme. The police should be called only in case of an emergency, when you feel threatened and concerned for your safety. There is security in the building and if the mayor wanted her removed, he could have had security escort her out. It certainly could have been handled in a better way than it was.

    I must say though that part of the reason I didn’t go to the meeting on street food is that I didn’t feel comfortable sitting through a meeting, partly because of how the situation was handled last Monday.

  2. April 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    The 9th circuit case you are citing is a very different kind of case–the commission here was obviously objecting to the content of this person’s gesture (a Nazi-style salute in their direction) and the procedural basis for arresting this individual was specious. He suffered under “viewpoint discrimination” according to the court. Whereas, here, Estes, everyone seems to agree, has been pretty evenhanded in his draconian approach to enforcing the rules of order.

    I really don’t think there is a constitutional requirement that representatives listen to public comment.

    The question here is whether that approach is consistent with open meetings law, which requires the opportunity for public comment. If Estes approach *effectively* denies it, he’s out of line.

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