Editorial: Public comment at government meetings is a privilege, not a right

When two men interrupted the Board of Selectmen meeting Dec. 6 to exercise their “freedom of speech,” they may have been unaware of the state law governing meetings and the protocol established by Robert’s Rules of Order.

They may not have known that the public has a right to attend selectmen meetings but not to comment, which is at the board’s discretion. It’s important for everyone to know what’s required by law and rules of decorum and what’s discretionay.

The Courier consulted with Thomas A Hennick, public education officer at the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, and Robert’s Rules of Order for information.

“No board is required to have any public speaking under the Freedom of Information Commission law,” Mr. Hennick said in a phone interview. “If they do have it, how they handle it is entirely up to them. They can do it any way they want.”

Mr. Hennick said the selectmen could say they are not going to hear from anyone during their meeting, and they would have every right to do that. The board may have people removed if they are disruptive, and it’s up to the board to decide how to handle the situation if it escalates, such as whether to call the police, he said.

He cited Connecticut General Statutes 1-232 — Conduct of Meetings, which states that if a person or group interrupts a meeting of a public agency, and it interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting, the indiviudals who are interrupting the meeting may be removed. If order is still not restored, the officials conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session. Only matters on the agenda may be considered. The public agency may readmit individuals who are not disturbing the meeting.

Robert’s Rules of Orders contains a section titled “Removing an Offender from the Assembly Hall.” It states that anyone attending a meeting can be removed from the assembly hall. The chair has the power to remove a nonmember at any time during a meeting, and this person has no right to appeal.

Government agencies may appoint a sergeant-at-arms to act as a doorkeeper. If a person is asked to leave and refuses, the chair should see that order is enforced. The chair may appoint a committee to escort the person to the door or ask the sergeant-at-arms to remove the person. If they can’t persuade the person to leave, the agency should call the police, Robert’s Rules states.

First Selectman Tom Herrmann has called the police during previous meeting disruptions by the the same two individuals. The police advised the two to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. However, they did not heed the advice, and their behavior at the Dec. 6 meeting resulted in charges.

Going forward the selectmen should continue to allow public comment and crack down on disruptive behavior. The selectmen would be well advised to appoint a sergeant-at-arms to reduce the need for police intervention.

Residents should be free to exercise their right of speech so long as they do so in a respectful and orderly fashion and understand that public comment is a privilege, not a right.

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