The Providence Journal’s Antonia Noori Farzan reported last month that a land transfer to Donna Travis, a member of the city council in Warwick, Rhode Island, had come under scrutiny, with the new leaders of a group that gave Travis the land raising questions about possible improprieties. Travis denied any wrongdoing.
It wasn’t the first time that Travis’ behavior had come under scrutiny. Back in 2017, she admitted she’d violated the state’s ethics code and paid a $1,200 fine. According to the Journal’s Carol Kozma, Travis’ case stemmed from her mixing her roles as a city official and as an executive at local nonprofit organizations. (I was able to access Farzan’s story through my USA Today subscription, but the process is convoluted and I don’t have a working link.)
🗽The New England Muzzles🗽
What brought this to my attention is what happened next. At a July 17 city council meeting, a Warwick resident named Rob Cote — identified by Rob Borkowski of the Warwick Post as a “frequent city critic” — was escorted out of the council chambers by a uniformed police officer after he had the temerity to wave a copy of the Journal at the council members and say, “First, I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman Donna Travis. Another front page of The Providence Journal.”
According to the Post and to a video of the proceedings rebroadcast on WPRI-TV (Channel 12), Travis immediately interjected that Cote would be thrown out if he failed to restrict his comments to matters involving city government.
Cote: “This is about city government.”
Travis: “Stick to a topic about city government or else you’ll be escorted out.”
Cote: “This is about city government. It’s actually mentioned about the Warwick City Council.”
Travis: “Did you hear what I just said?”
After telling Travis that the ACLU would hear about her attempts to squelch him, Cote was led out of the building. And sure enough, the ACLU of Rhode Island has gotten involved, writing a letter in conjunction with the New England First Amendment Coalition in which they “call upon the Council to reassure the public that this type of response will not be repeated and that residents will be free to speak at future meetings on matters involving city government without fear of being silenced.”
For her censorious efforts to shut down public discussion of an issue involving city government, Donna Travis has earned a New England Muzzle Award.
Now, let me tease out a few of the nuances here. As noted in the ACLU-NEFAC letter, signed by Steven Brown, executive editor of the ACLU of Rhode Island, and Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC, the city of Warwick imposes certain restrictions on members of the public who wish to speak at governmental meetings. One is that their comments pertain to issues “directly affecting city government.” But as the letter notes, Cote was shut down barely before he could get a word out, and, in any case, the property dispute involving Travis was “clearly a topic of public concern.”
In addition, the letter notes that Travis told the Warwick Beacon “it was the unwritten practice of the City Council not to allow ‘personal attacks’ during the public comment period.” Brown and Silverman respond that, “leaving aside the impropriety of relying on an ‘unwritten’ policy to censor the speech of a member of the public, any such policy itself is just as problematic from a First Amendment standpoint. In fact, courts have often struck down such restrictions as a violation of the public’s free speech rights.”
The other nuance I want to bring up is that the lack civility at local public meetings has become a real problem, making it difficult for elected officials to conduct business and driving some of them out of government. We’ve all seen televised school committee meetings at which out-of-control members of the public start screaming about critical race theory, transgender issues, vaccines or whatever. It can be difficult to know where to draw the line. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that local officials had gone too far in silencing a woman who twice called a select board chair “a Hitler.”
In the Warwick case, though, Cote comes across as polite, if sarcastic, and ready to talk about a matter of considerable public concern.
Travis might also consider the Streisand effect. Few people would know about the property dispute if she hadn’t tried to silence Cote. All around, it was a pretty sad performance by someone who was elected to act in the public’s best interest.
Correction: This post originally said that Travis was “led out of the building.” It was, of course, Cote.