For decades, local city councils, boards of selectmen, and school committees have tried to silence criticism of their actions by instituting vague and interpretive “civility policies” whereby people are silenced at public participation whenever they try to call out the bad behavior of elected officials, or raise issues that political insiders are trying to conceal from the press.
We have seen this time and again locally by those in power who refuse to allow certain topics to be raised at public meetings.
In fact, on more than one occasion the publisher of this newspaper has been escorted out of public meetings by police for daring to raise issues at public participation that highlight the bad behavior or deceptive tactics of public boards trying to pull a fast one.
Last March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard a case out of Southborough by a resident who claimed that her first amendment right of free speech was violated by the board of selectmen during a 2018 public hearing.
The chairman of that board at the time, Daniel Kolenda, called her comments “slander,” and shut down all public debate, threatening to have the woman removed.
Kolenda cited the board’s vague and subjective “civility policy” which stated, “All remarks and dialogues in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude personal or slanderous remarks.”
Consistent with the state and federal constitution, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court properly ruled that: “Although civility can and should be encouraged in political discourse, it cannot be required.”
This is a tremendous blow against political insiders who lie or present half-truths and then shut down anyone who tries to alert the public of their misdeeds.
Too often, those who hold public office and achieve political power use policies like this to silence their critics. But it’s not just abused by local boards.The Massachusetts Board of Medicine tried this a few years ago in a case involving Valley Patriot columnist Dr. Bharani Padmanabhan who had a lawsuit against the board for illegally taking away his medical license.
When patients of the doctor tried to speak on the subject, they were instantly shut down by the board chairman who laughingly put forward the idea that because there was a lawsuit against the board, no public discussion of the issue could take place.
Of course, the law says nothing of the kind. In fact, the law states that the BOARD cannot engage in discussions on the issue, but says nothing about restricting the public from discussing it at their public meetings.
In a political environment where the public is being silenced more and more every day, we applaud the State’s Supreme Court for standing on the side of free speech and against those who use trickery and self-serving “policies” that only benefit those in power – while stripping away the right of the press and the public to hear diverging points of view.
We believe this ruling rightfully restores the public’s power over elected and appointed officials in our government, and we will be watching very carefully to make sure local boards in the Merrimack Valley do not run afoul of this ruling. ◊