America is a “Free Speech Zone” except at city board meetings

by | November 9, 2017 8:33 am

Language of Liberty – By Karen Lees

I don’t usually write Language of Liberty articles since I’m the editor of the series. I prefer the work of our brilliant students, distinguished guest columnists, and the talented members of our administrative staff. All of the above are much better writers. But when something happens in my own community that triggers alarm bells, I am compelled to write. And this subject provides an excellent learning opportunity, which is one important purpose of the series.

Last Thursday, Nov. 2, the City Board of Alderman, in Sparta, Tennessee, declined a motion to allow citizen input at City Board meetings. Their decision is now a part of the public record: a policy that alienates the people they represent and is repugnant to the framers’ original intent of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment.

City Board meetings are required to be open to the public under Tennessee State Sunshine laws and, therefore, are among THE most critical places that free speech of the public should be encouraged and fostered.

First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson, Jr. writes about free speech in government meetings, “Sometimes government officials need to silence disruptive citizens or to prohibit endless repetition. However, other times the officials may be squelching citizen speech because they want to suppress the message.”

The framers wisely designed our unique system so that everything government does must be in public view and subject to public scrutiny. Hearing the public verbalize that scrutiny can be uncomfortable for elected officials. But listening to public input is part of the job description. And the best way of getting that input in the public record and at the same time foster public trust and involvement, is to encourage it at public meetings.

When one is elected by the people, that person is tasked with doing the people’s business on their behalf. Banning public comment in public meetings would be like telling your boss he or she is banned from giving input in staff meetings concerning the job you are doing for him or her. Because of the negative consequence that follows, it’s probably something you should never say, even if you’re thinking it.

As it was designed, the experience of citizen interaction is actually supposed to be uncomfortable for elected officials at times.

The people are to act as sandpaper to government. It’s not comfortable for either party to smooth off rough edges to keep a governmental body a true representation of the people, but it’s absolutely necessary. Without the people’s input, officials under the influence of unbridled control of policy will naturally become what they once hated: the abhorrence that probably motivated them to run for office in the first place. This historically documented dynamic played out in Europe over and over again, and was the very reason for the Revolutionary war.

It is the citizens’ duty to interact with government and bring something of value to the table. Their testimony and research can be invaluable to elected officials. These are relationships worth cultivating. We are also tasked with keeping our republican system maintained and within its designated boundaries. That was never intended to be the sole job of elected officials. It actually goes against the nature of their job! The people are the ultimate check in that balance.

What many elected officials don’t realize is that the governing process can be very intimidating and uncomfortable for citizens too. It takes a lot of courage to get up and speak before a governing body and do it well. If you have enough passion to address an issue, it’s extremely difficult to do it calmly, trying not to offend the dignity and respect of officials. It’s not a natural inclination. For those few who attempt it, they should be commended, not discouraged.

I’ve only known a very few who could give and take correction well. It seemed to come naturally to former state representative and fellow self-governance student Charles Curtiss. His open, down-to-earth manner is refreshing. He’s had to advise me on several occasions. Thankfully, he made it as painless as possible. But unfortunately, I had already shot my mouth off in public; so much of his advice was for the “next time.” So for now, I’ll just be over here, writing down my thoughts to practice verbal temperance.

As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” I am grateful to Representative Curtiss for mentoring others and myself in diplomacy, enhancing the training Jefferson refers to. Curtiss truly lives out another of Jefferson’s quotes: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Many times, citizens get frustrated and we often lack the political knowledge, skills, and ability to articulate our desire to make necessary policy changes. Sometimes, we’re asleep at the switch. So perhaps our city officials became too comfortable with our apathy and developed a “we’ve got this” mindset? That’s on us. If we did not confront it long ago, it’s our own fault.

But if we know and understand our Constitution and the way our system of government was designed to work, we can then maintain our system and keep it within its proper boundaries. It’s not as hard as we think, and no, it’s not too late to do it.

Sparta and White County Tennessee have made national and international headlines in the last few years, and not for our beautiful countryside or our bluegrass music. We have become infamous for making bad public policy that has violated some of the most basic of Constitutional rights. Most of us had a gut feeling of “That’s just wrong” when it happened, but didn’t know why. It is important we learn the constitution so we can spot when it is violated a mile away, and understand why it’s wrong. Besides, think of it: this kind of negative publicity will never help tourism or new industry come to our area.

Our community is home to some of the best, kind-hearted folk anywhere. I do not believe for one minute these erroneous policies come out of ill intent, but out of ignorance. There is no shame in ignorance. There’s only shame in the prideful attitude that keeps one ignorant.

Perhaps this is why Tennessee legislators passed a law to compel schools to teach the Constitution? Our system is deteriorating because it is not being maintained by the maintenance crew – the people.

So, in the spirit of making our community a better place to live and work, consider this a challenge to become a self-governed, well-educated, involved citizen. Hands-on training in civics and the Constitution is available at a very low cost per person. No one is above learning something new – or reviewing things forgotten.

I specifically challenge Sparta and White County elected officials to set an example by organizing an educational initiative for adults and youth in hands-on civics training and the Constitution, and then becoming a mentor in self-governance. Representative Charles Curtiss was a good example to many when he was the first elected official to enroll in self-governance training back in 2014. He still enthusiastically encourages others to do the same, and continues to mentor many.

We are all stakeholders in a self-governing society and we all, whether elected or not, must govern together. Let’s make Sparta and White County well-known for getting it right in our corner of the world!

Below are some resources:

  • Center for Self Governance provides in-depth, hands-on training for citizens in proper and effective citizen engagement, the levels of government, and state and federal constitutions. Contact them at CenterForSelfGovernance.com.
  • KrisAnne Hall teaches live courses on the Constitution nationwide and can be contacted at KrisAnneHall.com.
  • Hillsdale College has a huge archive of free online courses on the Constitution and history. Go to Hillsdale.edu.
  • Retired Judge Advocate General (JAG) Publius Huldah is a local expert on the Constitution and a valuable resource on practical application. She is available for speaking engagements and consultation, and can be contacted at PubliusHuldah.com.

The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. CSG is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in applied civics. The authors include administrative staff, selected students, and guest columnists. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. Contact them at CenterForSelfGovernance.com

comments » 1

  1. Comment by Tom

    November 9, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    2 words for this situation – recall election.

    One point, however: there is shame in ignorance. The root word of “ignorance” is “ignore”. To ignore something you must first be aware of it. If you are aware that something is wrong, yet choose to ignore it anyway, then shame on you.

    Thanks for your column.


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