“Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required” by government policy, writes State Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker in last week’s unanimous decision overturning the town of Southborough’s public comment code of conduct.
Thanks, your honors. Now if only the whiners, haters and trolls who threaten to overrun our political discourse would stop the madness.
The SJC ruling comes in a case that illustrates how things have gone off the rails.
In a December 2018 Southborough Board of Selectmen’s meeting, a local resident offered blunt criticism of the Board’s budget management, claiming the town “has been spending like drunken sailors” and rapping them for violations of the open meeting law. The Board’s chairman took offense, accused the resident of “slander” against “town officials who are doing their very best,” and when she disputed his claim, he threatened to shut down the public comment period.
At that point, the resident reached for the top-shelf whiskey in the ad hominem liquor cabinet: “You need to stop being a Hitler. You’re a Hitler.” Recess called, microphones shut off, chairman points and yells at resident, resident sues, many billable hours ensue.
The SJC convincingly argues that while the resident’s Hitler reference was “rude and insulting,” it’s also protected speech under the state constitution. And the plaintiffs celebrated as if a great blow had been struck for democracy.
Not. Let’s flex our own free speech rights with a rude message to the victors in their titanic struggle with the great satans of this beleaguered board: grow the hell up.
Well beyond the prickly confines of the Southborough Town House, things have gotten ugly. Vulgar language and obnoxious commentary that would have been bleeped out on talk radio not so long ago are now lingua franca, thanks to the internet, Trumpism and fill-in-your-own villain here.
Garbage in, garbage out. A top Boston elected official told us recently he is routinely and aggressively berated by constituents “I’ve known all my life.” From the airlines to your local stores and restaurants, abusive customer behavior is on the rise.
Public officials are prime targets. If you want to attend a public meeting where you can be sure everyone will be treated with courtesy and respect, try Brigadoon Town Hall. The public records law is routinely abused by conspiracy kooks.
Public servants are like NBA refs – they have to swallow a ton of obnoxious blowback, and can’t be trying to muzzle citizens raising legitimate issues with vague “civility codes.” But as the town’s lawyer noted in the SJC oral arguments on the case, “calling somebody a Hitler ends the conversation. It’s not a way to advance the public discourse.”
For those jonesing for more of the thrill of vitriol than you already get from the 24/7 firehose of Facebook, social media and morning zoo podcasts, government is just another venue. But to see the public comment section of a selectmen’s meeting immediately disintegrate into two people losing their bleep on each other is to watch democracy in inaction – no meaningful exchange of information or ideas, no chance for mutual understanding.
That’s the thing about free speech – freedom from consequences does not apply. Keep talking trash to each other, and you flush a big part of our social fabric away.
The Southborough plaintiff may have won her case that the town had no business shutting her down because she, as her lawyer put it, “followed all the rules.”
But not the Golden Rule.
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