Free speech priority at public meetings
At city commission and township board meetings, it is customary to have public comment, where members of the community come to the podium and after giving their name and address, can speak on a topic of their choice for a set time limit.
Or so it was until a commission meeting in Birmingham on July 8, at which the city attorney advised members of the public they couldn't speak about their views – in any way – regarding the August 6 election on the N. Old Woodward parking project. City attorney Tim Currier's reasoning was that a contract existing between the city and the Birmingham Area Cable Board “prohibits political speech.”
During public comment at that meeting, two Birmingham citizen activists, Clinton Baller and David Bloom, attempted to present their points of view opposing the N. Old Woodward project – with Currier telling them their comments were out of order, and mayor Patty Bordman, upon Currier's order, gaveling the meeting to a close. Following the meeting, Baller and Bloom filed suit against the city of Birmingham, Bordman and Currier, alleging their free speech rights, as well as the state's Open Meetings Act, had been violated by the city. On August 5, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts issued a temporary restraining order for that night's commission meeting, stating that the plaintiffs could not advocate which way to vote on the upcoming vote, which ultimately failed at the polls the following day, they had to comply with decorum requirements, and the city could not stop them from speaking or cut the cable broadcast during the public comment period of the meeting. Motion responses by both parties to the original lawsuit are upcoming.
Judge Roberts made a wise move, preserving the baby without throwing out the bathwater. It is imperative that commissions and boards respect the free speech rights of their citizens – as long as residents respect their elected officials and the legislative bodies, as well.
Free speech is protected in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment because of its importance, and it cannot be abridged because board members don't like the attitudes of residents, the views they espouse, or the topics they bring up. Likewise, the courts have consistently ruled that municipal contracts cannot negate free speech rights. Communities are made up of a variety of people, wide backgrounds and diversity, and perspectives and opinions – which is the exact reason individuals choose to live there. Instead of shutting down dissenting viewpoints, elected leaders should encourage citizen involvement to better hear the voices of their community – whether they like what they are saying or not.
For residents, it is imperative to mind time limits, which boards are right to set – without them, public comment and public hearings can get repetitive and out of control. In addition, every meeting demands mutual courtesy and respect – and audience members have no more right to speak out of turn or use disparaging or disrespectful language or physicality than an official would.
Let's return to respectful, open dialogues between communities and the boards who serve them. And let everyone freely speak their mind.