Despite a ruling by the state’s highest court that the Southborough select board violated a woman’s free speech rights by shutting her down after she referred to a member as a “Hitler,” local governmental bodies can still enforce rules of decorum — as long as it’s done in a content-neutral manner.
The ACLU of Massachusetts has sent a letter to the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees offering guidance on how to proceed following the Supreme Judicial Court’s Barron v. Kolenda decision, which found that a local bylaw requiring “civility” violated both the state constitution and the First Amendment.
“We hope to work together to maintain peaceable and orderly meetings and to preserve constitutionally protected input by the public,” according to letter, signed by state ACLU executive director Carol Rose and senior and managing attorney Ruth A. Bourquin. The letter adds: “We understand that there is much to digest in the Court’s opinion and that some public bodies fear the decision will lead to disorderly public meetings. This fear is not warranted.”
The heart of the letter are 10 specific guidelines that local officials can follow in keeping unruly members of the public from getting out of hand. Some of them were outlined by the SJC itself — time limits for public comment and for individual speakers as well as rules that forbid speakers from interrupting each other. Some go beyond that. For instance, the letter says that rules preventing anyone from speaking unless recognized by the chair are lawful, as are limits to topics that are within the jurisdiction of the public body. Needless to say, anyone who threatens violence can be ordered to leave.
As someone who used to spend a considerable amount of time reporting on such meetings back, I think the ACLU’s guidelines contain a lot of common sense, and I hope local officials will take them to heart. Probably nothing could have prevented Louise Barron from calling Southborough select board member a “Hitler.” She was, after all, protesting what she regarded as the board’s violations of the state’s open meeting law, which is a legitimate topic. But if the board had rules in place stating that she couldn’t speak until recognized and was limited to five minutes, the damage would have been contained.
None of this should minimize how vile Barron’s comments were. Her behavior that night was loathsome. Frankly, even though the SJC made the correct decision, Barron should have apologized rather than filing a lawsuit to defend her own disgusting behavior.