TOM WARD - Can we enjoy ‘smarter’ limits to public speech?

TOM WARD - Can we enjoy ‘smarter’ limits to public speech?

It’s difficult to come down clearly – for or against – the move two months ago to put a five-minute time limit on public comment before the Smithfield Town Council. President Paul Santucci made the change unilaterally on Aug. 8, citing the council’s written rules of procedure.

For months, there have been lengthy attacks against Republican councilors, specifically Maxine Cavanagh, and Town Solicitor Ed Alves, who recently resigned his position. Yes, the attackers had a valid point regarding Cavanagh’s distant relationship to Alves, and her vote appointing him as solicitor. The question is, though, should members of the public have unlimited time to make personal and political attacks – even fact-based ones – while others in the crowd might have other things to discuss with councilors?

The new argument by some Democrats is that the “gag rule” is an attack by Santucci on their First Amendment rights. I doubt that. This newspaper has a 500-word limit on letters, specifically so people can make their case and get off the stage. Long letters are less likely to be read, and long bloviators at council meetings can become tiresome bores.

Putting aside politics, shorter presentations are better. While councilors are “public servants,” they aren’t “public slaves” mandated to sit and listen until 1 a.m. to unlimited stream-of-consciousness chatter or mammoth presentations laced with political venom. Everyone has a right to speak, but residents should put preparation into their words, including sharing written thoughts with councilors in advance if prudent. With a bit more respect from both sides, perhaps the hard and fast five-minute limit can be ended.

I must also admit, Smithfield came to mind when I read about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s lame efforts to avoid having persons or groups identify themselves in political advertising. As most readers know, political ads found in newspapers and on TV have to tell readers and viewers who financed the ad. It’s the small print at the bottom. Online ads have been exempt from that rule, and Zuckerberg likes it that way. Facebook became home to packs of unfiltered lies and hate speech in 2016. Pure democracy can get messy.

Now, poor Mark has to explain to his Seattle cocktail party friends how he might have been duped by Russian interests as they spent millions on pre-election advertising in swing states that were eventually won by President Trump. Oops.

Zuckerberg claims he will now work to make things better, hiring people to look at and vet political ads. In other words, choose winners and losers (and conservatives know how that will go ...). Here’s the thing: It won’t work. While Facebook might hire people to screen national campaign ads, there is no way they will have enough people to look over the tidal wave of ads packed with lies in the closing days of local campaigns. And charming little Smithfield, sadly, is notable for this stuff.

So a warning to all voters for one year from now. Anybody can place an ad on Facebook, and spew pretty much any lie they want. Zuckerberg only cares that he makes money. Voters would be wise to ignore pretty much anything on Facebook in a campaign’s closing days. This might change someday, but it won’t by 2018.

Playing with fire

I agree fully with the caution displayed by both Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Councilor James Cournoyer regarding new firefighters paid with federal funds. Last week, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Congress awarded $1.5 million to the city for the training and hiring of 12 firefighters. The money lasts three years, and then the city is on its own. I’ve seen this ruse before. A city takes the money, politicians buy union support, and in a few years, local taxpayers get stiffed as federal money runs out. Too many communities have fallen for this, and lived to regret it. City leaders need to study this carefully.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze.

Comments

What ever happened to the days when a person, wanting to communicate to their public officials, picked up the phone, wrote a letter (or email), or stopped them on the street, at church or supermarket to let them know their feelings on local issues.

Public meetings are for the business of the body to be conducted, not meant to be a forum for anyone wanting to speak ad nauseum.

Public comment should be limited to "public hearings" where public testimony is the purpose. Council work sessions (special meetings) are the forum for constituents to discuss proposed legislation.

When an elected or appointed body sits down to conduct their business, it should be only that.

Mr. Ward, you've “said it all” in that after grant terms have expired, communities “get stiffed as federal money runs out”. Yes, we've seen that 'tactical maneuver' in play before, haven't we?

Let's hope that this particular “firefighter funding" will be scrutinized and properly monitored by ALL City Officials.....and that HISTORY won't REPEAT itself!

AMEN!

It is within our tradition of Town Hall style meetings to have public comment at the beginning or end of Regular meetings. This has been soundly backed in the past by the Secretary Of States office. It is not restricted by the RI Open Meeting Law Act, the RI Constitution or any Town Charter that I am aware of. I am not aware of 'best practice' for residents to only contact their representatives outside of Council Chambers. I do not think it is impolite or disrespectful to want to participate in government.

The Council has the authority to place time limits on speakers for the purpose of avoiding people speaking 'ad nauseum', No council president is going to allow someone to filibuster for 10 hours. If they do, I will not last long. Obviously, if 200 out of town people show up and want to disrupt, that is a problem, again the Council President can place reasonable restrictions on speakers. In some cases they have to continue the meeting or change venues, etc.

About "Special Meetings", on the contrary Public Comment is usually not allowed or in many cases, the public is not even allowed in some of these types of meetings. Many times they are conducted in Executive Session for legal reasons. Ex: Real estate transactions, Collective bargaining, etc. I do believe open public forums are a great way for resident to speak up on particular topics.

You are correct, they must stick to the agenda, however in many towns they have the flexibility to allow public comment on issue, with reasonable restrictions, with a simple majority vote. For example, if someone raises their hand and want to speak up on a topic, the council may decide they want to hear them, at that point, take a vote to allow public comment on the item.

Moral of my story is I sincerely think more involvement in government is better than less.

Again, no disrespect meant at all, just a difference of opinion.