Thursday, May 04, 2017

St. Augustine Record editorial re: St. Augustine Beach Mayor RICHARD BURTT O'BRIEN's Latest Attack on Freedlom of Speech:

Opinion Editor Jim Sutton fired a shot over the bows of repressive Commissioners in our town and county.  Enough gooberishness.  Enough censorship.  Interrupting speakers to condemn them for "personal attacks" when they criticize government employees is demeaning to the interupter and the interrupted. It shows contempt for  our democracy by the likes of Mayor O'BRIEN.

Editorial, Posted May 4, 2017 12:01 am

Civil discourse is a work in progress (print headline)
Noisy meetings… (online headline)

St. Augustine Beach is setting its municipal sights on reining in verbal attacks and disruptive outbursts during its city commission meetings.

It is as slippery a slope as there is, walking the fine and ruthlessly ambiguous line of free speech and illegal activity. Even courts across the nation draw different lines in the sand, attempting to put legal space between one and the other.

So California cases do little to help delineate right from wrong public behavior in Florida.

To add another layer of complexity to the issue, courts have determined that a city council meeting is a limited public forum.

In these defined forums, a city can adopt reasonable limitations on who may use the forum and how it may be used.

That sounds pretty cut and dried until you begin to determine what is “reasonable” and what is not.

Generally, from what we’ve gleaned, a good starting place is that city’s can sometimes regulate how a message is delivered, but is at great peril in regulating what the message is.

“Screw you” is a protected statement. “Screw you” chanted for several minutes during a public meeting is a disruption.

What’s going to be a problem for the Beach is its dual goal of keeping order in its meetings and protecting its employees from verbal attacks. The former may be doable, the latter … not so much.

Derogatory remarks may well be perfectly true. And, remember, you can’t shoot the messenger while aiming rules at the message.

Some cities are looking at punishing bad behavior by blocking participation at a subsequent meeting.

An Oregon judge recently ruled against a city for attempting to ban speakers who misbehaved in previous meetings from a later meeting, stating, “The court declines Defendants’ invitation to be the first federal court in the nation to uphold such a broad prospective exclusion ordinance.”

But the judge continued: “Even in a democracy, the government need not tolerate actual disruptions of government business. Undisputedly, a presiding officer may remove from an official public meeting anyone who engages in actual disruption.” The caveat: “provided that the removal is tied to the disruption rather than the person’s viewpoint.”

The Beach and the City of St. Augustine might be wise to consider one other factor in the behavior of those in attendance. That is the behavior of the board members themselves.

St. Augustine has suffered in that respect recently. The Beach has an epidemic. If the commissioners themselves shun civility, who can blame the peanut gallery? The tone is set. The outcome seems assured.

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