Voter participation is at an all time low for localities. The participation/attending/viewing city council meetings is even lower by citizens. This allows for bad behavior by elected officials to go mostly unnoticed. However, there is always the faithful small group that watches what goes on in local politics and either writes about them on blogs, emails them out to groups, or speaks about issues that concern them at council meetings. At the latter, they have been attacked frequently in cities across the United States. These include such tactics as limiting time to speak, limiting amount of times they can speak, and limiting the topics on which they are allowed to speak. Now I know many who read this column may have never spoken at a council meeting but I am sure that items were brought to light by one of these speakers which affected you in some way even, if you did not know the person who brought it into the light was a citizen voicing concern.
Locally, I have been watching this assault on citizens’ rights for years from Hampton’s City Council. I wrote a piece earlier this year about one of the most outspoken citizens. It was because of issues like his that the eminent domain laws were recently passed by the people of Virginia. The City Council, however, used him as an excuse to limit speaking time and to move the citizens portion to before the regular meeting. They also discussed limiting the amount of times people could speak. It seems to be a common practice in Hampton to use one person you do not like as the reason of restricting all the other 136,000 people’s rights.
To be fair to Hampton, they have had a couple hard years on topics council had to face. People have criticized things such as repetitive flooding, the building of a new courthouse, financial questions on a police sting and property bought by the city that the Mayor had a limited financial interest in. I will point out all of these topics were city issues and the citizens had a right to question what was occurring. Some of the items got very vocal, especially the land involving the Mayor. I sat in a meeting and watched citizens say horrible personal things about the mayor. The Vice Mayor was supposed to be facilitating the talk and he finally cut one person off and told her personal comments were inappropriate . The speaker looked confused and started up again where she left off and the Vice Mayor did nothing. Now the speaker was wrong. The Vice Mayor should have stopped it. However, that should not be a reason to restrict anyone else from having the right to publicly state their concerns with council.
For years I have sat and listened as they belittled speakers at council. It has become a constant theme between council and city employees that citizens really don’t have any concerns with how the city is run; they just like to see themselves on TV. While that might have scared some people off from speaking, it never affected me. I figure if you can not argue the point of the policy I am complaining about but can only personally belittle me, then you strengthen my point that the policy is wrong. This week, apparently belittling the public speakers wasn’t enough: The Mayor decided that the public comment section would no longer be televised. I will note there was no public discussion or any vote on this issue.
This topic was discussed earlier this year at their retreat. Their complaints varied on items such as a person reading poetry, someone running for a council seat speaking and people going over the time buzzer. Mayor said at the retreat, “What you can say on the street corner does necessarily apply to the court room or in chambers.” Well she is right about the court and wrong about the council. Citizens have a right to question, disagree or even criticize the government.
The City Attorney Cynthia Hudson offered the idea that some cities restrict speakers to items on the agenda. Hampton, I am sure, would love to do this as they do not like anyone complaining about the flooding issues and, in the past, tried to block people from speaking of the problems. With this rule no one would be allowed to discuss an item unless the City Council allowed it by placing it on the agenda. Councilman Moffett agreed with the idea of restricting speech saying that it would bring “decorum” back to council. With all due respect to Councilman Moffett, maybe the Council should lead by example by not belittling citizens who wish to speak on issues either from the bench or in their press releases.
With this latest rule the Mayor has removed access to public comments from people who are unable or unwilling to physically attend the council meetings. The Mayor gave one of the reasons for limiting access as it would make it more “accessible to all citizens.” I will leave it up to the reader to try to figure out that logic.
While there was no vote the Daily Press reported Council members Chris Stuart, Chris Snead and Billy Hobbs said they support the change. Councilman Stuart said his concern was one of safety. While I know people are more upset with politicians people have throughout history have been critically and contentious at government meetings. This is nothing new and should not be used as an excuse to restrict access to the people’s criticism of their governing body. Also I do not see how people who are not in the room, watching a broadcast, are a safety concern.
Councilwoman Sneed said to the Daily Press that “she feels speakers have personally insulted her for actions and decisions that didn’t involve her.” I would say to her when you do not oppose an action but go along with the majority, then you are voting for that action. Also, Councilwoman Sneed did not run for Miss Congeniality. She ran and won a political office, which, in turn, requires her to be accountable for the actions she takes in the name of the voters. We are a democracy and no matter how someone votes, there will always be people who disagree or criticize. An elected official should be able to explain his/her reasoning for voting.
Many see it as just increasing petty power trips to suppress the citizens’ right to free speech. Restricting citizens from hearing other citizens’ concerns is also a form of restricting free speech. The Daily Press article indicated that this particular decision originated from a continued disagreement between the Mayor and former Delegate Tom Gear.
In the most extreme cases some localities have looked into restricting speech to only items that were approved in advance, as Hampton’s Attorney Cynthia Hudson suggested. The problem with this type of rule is that it leaves council with the ultimate power of who is allowed and who is not allowed to speak
My hope is that someone on council will demand a vote be taken on this. Then the citizens could see who supported restricting fellow citizens’ rights to freedom of speech.
To be blunt, it is time for council to quit worrying about how to stop people from questioning or criticizing your votes. It is time to put on your big boy/girl panties, do your job, and be able to defend how you vote.
Can you imagine where we would be today if abolitionist Frederick Douglas or suffragist Alice Paul had to ask permission to speak against the government? One of the best advocates of freedom of speech, George Washington, explained its importance by saying “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”