‘A right, not a privilege’


Derek Buckley

“A privilege, not a right.”

This was the title of a recent Courier editorial on the power of officials to limit speech at public meetings.  Reportedly it was based on the opinion of attorney Tom Hennick of the FOI Commission and Robert’s Rules.

I asked Tom Hennick to clarify his opinion, since it appears to violate the U.S. Constitution guarantee of freedom of speech.  His written reply was:

“What I believe I said, which is accurate, is that the FOI Act does not guarantee anyone the right to speak at a public meeting. We have no jurisdiction. That means that how the board controls the speaking, limiting questions, limiting speakers, limiting time of speech is not anything that FOI has any control over. We are not players in that issue. The board does have a right to run an orderly meeting (Section 1-232).”

This statute is intended only to ensure an orderly meeting so that all can speak.  The FOI Commission “is not a player” and has “no jurisdiction” because the U.S. Constitution guarantees orderly speech.

No board is unique in controlling the agenda and adopting rules that try to limit when people can speak and what they can say.  Normally, in the absence of specificity, common sense prevails.  If speech can be limited to the beginning of the meeting then why not to before the meeting, or after, or last week, or next week, or next year.  Common sense dictates comments at the time the agenda item is being addressed.  Similarly, speakers should not be limited to comments only and not questions.  It appears that none of these rules can survive challenge.  If they can, Easton should adopt common sense rules that ensure orderly public discourse on all agenda items.  If not, what is the point of a public meeting?

Robert’s Rules are much quoted but little understood.  The author has been dead for more than one hundred years, and they have been updated several times.  They have no legal force and cannot overrule statutes.  The first Robert’s Rule is that to be applicable the agency must formally adopt them by resolution.  I do not think that this has happened for any Easton Agency. If it has, it has not been recorded, and therefore violates Robert’s Rule that all “happenings” must be recorded in the Minutes.  The rules cannot be applied selectively.

Free speech relieves political pressure in a democracy. By definition, disorderly speech is a consequence of suppressing orderly speech. Both are inexcusable. Disorderly conduct can be a symptom of repressive government.

Boards often add to their agenda by majority vote.  Why not let the public do the same by majority vote of the attendees.  It is after all their town business that is being discussed.

You might consider another editorial supporting the rights of “We the people” to orderly speech at public meetings.  A suggested title is:

“A right, not a privilege.”

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