Town meetings are coming, and we are wondering how local citizens and governments will navigate hot-button issues this year. At last spring’s town meeting in Truro, a proposed change in the way the planning board is chosen provoked some unruly shouting from the galleries.
Afterwards, the Truro Select Board endorsed the idea of having a “civility pledge,” to be recited at the beginning of every board meeting. The idea for this still-unadopted pledge arose from complaints about people’s behavior at meetings.
Provincetown and Wellfleet have also considered rules for enforcing “civil discourse” at public meetings. Two years ago, the Wellfleet Select Board considered a policy forbidding disrespectful or threatening behavior or language by town officials.
This month the Supreme Judicial Court weighed in with a unanimous decision striking down a Southborough bylaw establishing a “civility code” for public meetings. The bylaw required that comments at meetings be “respectful and courteous” and prohibited “rude, personal or slanderous” statements.
The law was challenged by Louise Barron, who was silenced and threatened with removal from a meeting of the Southborough Select Board when she assailed it for violating the state’s Open Meeting Law and accused it of “spending like drunken sailors.” The board did not appreciate Barron’s views, and things rapidly went downhill. She called the board chair “a Hitler” and he told her she was “disgusting.”
In its ruling, the state’s highest court found that the framers of the Commonwealth’s constitution did not give high priority to courteousness. “There was nothing respectful or courteous about the public assemblies of the revolutionary period,” the justices wrote. “There was also much that was rude and personal, especially when it was directed at the representatives of the king and the king himself.”
The story made the New York Times, which reported that the court had reaffirmed a basic liberty: “the right to be rude at public meetings.”
That story missed an important point, however. People have the right to express strong and even obnoxious opinions — a right I personally treasure. But they don’t have the right to disrupt the processes of government.
Wellfleet Moderator Dan Silverman understands the difference. When people shouted from the audience at last year’s town meeting calling to end debate on an article, Silverman corrected them. “That’s not how we do things,” he said. “To speak or make a motion you must wait your turn and be recognized.” His clarity commanded respect. And the shouting stopped, too.
What made Silverman’s edict work was that at the heart of the rule was an invitation. The process actually makes way for people’s opinions rather than shutting them down.
To enforce the rules of order, of course, you have to know them and apply them fairly. Maybe a course on Robert’s Rules would reawaken our drowsy sense of civic pride.