Monday, May 08, 2017

Record columnist Steven Cottrell again supports citizen free speech in government meetings

James Madison wrote, supporting education, in 1822:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Posted May 8, 2017 12:02 am
By STEVE COTTRELL Public Occurrences

STEVE COTTRELL: Government can’t legislate manners

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

— 19th century children’s rhyme

At least one St. Augustine Beach city commissioner is fed up with what he calls offensive, abusive language coming from certain citizens at commission meetings. He is especially concerned about inflammatory public comments aimed at the city’s professional staff.

During its May 1 meeting, Commissioner Gary Snodgrass addressed the issue — particularly as it relates to citizens questioning city staff’s honesty and integrity.

Referring to an earlier 2017 meeting when some nasty allegations were hurled staff’s way, Commissioner Snodgrass said he regretted not interceding at the time. He publicly apologized to staff for not coming to their defense when he should have.

“We cannot allow people to call our employees liars,” he told his colleagues.

Mayor Rich O’Brien responded by noting that he holds the gavel and it’s his responsibility to deal with abusive speakers. He, too, expressed regret that insulting, offensive language went unchecked at the meeting Snodgrass cited.

Mayor O’Brien then assured his colleagues —and staff — that derogatory language and verbal abuse at meetings he chairs, “will never happen again, no matter what.” And, for emphasis, he repeated, “No matter what.”

Not sure how he intends to do that.

Insulting staff or public officials may not be a cool thing for citizens to do, but there’s a not-so-little item called the First Amendment. While it’s true that citizens who disrupt public proceedings may be asked to step away from the dais or even ordered to leave the meeting room, courts tend to give “disruption” lots of latitude.

Words alone are not disruptive. They can be insulting and even false, but not necessarily disruptive. It becomes disruptive when a speaker goes beyond the time allotted them, or in some other way prolongs the meeting or interferes with other speakers.

Bottom line? You can’t legislate good manners.

During my six years as a county school board trustee and 16 years on a small-town city council, more than a few citizens went to the microphone to unleash some verbal venom. I especially recall a night when a parent, addressing me during my term as school board president, suggested where — and exactly how — I could insert the gavel I held in my hand.

The suggestion was offensive, sure, but not disruptive.

As long as the St. Augustine Beach commission enforces its policy of limiting public comments to three minutes, commissioners need to take a deep breath, count to 10 and accept the fact that some folks are going to verbally blast them. And maybe blast city staff while they’re at it

Like it or not, it comes with the territory — no matter how inappropriate the remarks might be.


Speaking of inappropriate remarks, (he says in a not-so-subtle segue), something the president said a few days ago certainly caught my attention.

After awarding a Purple Heart to an Army sergeant wounded in Afghanistan, the president shook the soldier’s hand and said, “Congratulations.”


Losing a leg as a result of injuries suffered in Afghanistan does not call for a congratulatory handshake.

Until his death in 2014, I had the privilege of calling Jon Cavaiani my friend. Jon was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1974 for unselfish bravery in South Vietnam. Shortly after meeting Jon in 1990, I wrote a newspaper column referring to him as a “Medal of Honor winner.”

Next time we met for adult beverages, Jon politely explained, “I’m a Medal of Honor recipient, Steve, not a Medal of Honor winner. This isn’t some kind of contest, you know? We don’t win these things.”

Humbling for me? You bet.

When I heard the president congratulate a soldier for becoming an amputee, I was reminded of my own faux pas.

Sure hope someone has advised the president, “Next time, sir, just say ‘Thank you for your service.’”

Steve Cottrell can be contacted at
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1 Comment

Tom Reynolds
You forgot one thing Steve. Words only HURT when it is the TRUTH !

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