Political pundits weigh in on St. George decision to end public comment at council meetings

Focus on balancing the government’s interest with people’s rights and, if possible, decide in favor of maintaining freedom of speech, one expert advises.

St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead (left) tells crowd at various times to “calm down,” “chill out” and “relax,” at a City Council meeting on May 4, 2023. This took place after the mayor recessed the meeting due to unruly behavior.

St. George • Free speech or maintaining public order, which matters most?

That’s what political pundits are commenting on in the wake of St. George Mayor Michele Randall’s recent decision to curb incivility by putting an end to the public comment segment in the first City Council meeting each month.

[Related: After disruptions and accusations of being ‘woke,’ St. George mayor axes public comment]

Previous Mayor Jon Pike implemented the oral public comment period about a decade ago. In nixing public comment outside of public hearings on specific issues, Randall attributed her decision to the growing divisiveness and incivility at council meetings, especially from residents who engage in name-calling and want to vent about “social issues” that have nothing or little to do with municipal matters.

Randall’s decision triggered a significant backlash at the City Council’s May 4 meeting from some residents, who accused her and council members of violating their oath of office by abridging the public’s Constitutional First Amendment right to freedom of speech and called for the mayor’s removal from office.

Vince Brown, director of Utah Tech University’s Institute of Politics, is not taking sides in the dispute but says he understands the mayor’s frustration, having witnessed residents make objections and hurl accusations on issues that don’t relate to city business.

Freedom of speech, he said, is not an absolute. Like every right it comes with an attendant responsibility and can be subject to government restrictions.

“If people are yelling, if they’re making irrelevant comments, if they’re disrupting the meeting, we have basic common law, constitutional law, that says time, place and manner restrictions are appropriate if the government has an interest in restricting [speech],” Brown said.

“The government does have an interest in getting its business done,” he continued. “How far does that interest limit free speech? Well, that’s the balance that we’re always looking for.”

Brown’s advice on the issue: Focus on balancing the government’s interest with people’s rights and, if possible, decide in favor of maintaining freedom of speech. He also says some residents need a refresher course on government.

“A lot of people are upset about things that are occurring at the national level and bringing that [anger] to the City Council or the State Legislature,” he said. “[People] are bringing these national fights down to the local level where it’s not really appropriate.”

St. George leaders are not the only ones on the business end of public hostility and incivility.

“It’s happening at all levels of governance – local, state and congressional representatives are having this issue,” said Utah Valley University assistant political science professor Zoe Nemerever.

Aside from the negative impact of incivility on public meetings, Nemerever said it also serves to discourage good people from running for office and becoming public servants. She characterizes the dustups at St. George council meetings, the members of which are all registered Republicans, as being similar to their counterparts in Arizona.

“It’s probably pretty similar to the culture of Republicans in Arizona, where you have folks like Kari Lake versus more moderate, traditional Republicans,” she said.

Lake lost the 2022 Arizona governor’s race to Democrat Katie Hobbs, alienating many voters by refusing to concede her defeat and filing a lawsuit to have the election overturned. She also promoted the “Big Lie” that Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

Nemerever said the refusal of some elected officials to condemn such behavior has contributed to the spread and acceptance of incivility and other inappropriate behavior since many Americans take their cues from “elites” like elected officials.

Fortunately, there has been little spillover effect from St. George’s woes to neighboring cities. Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli said his city used to field public comments at council meetings years ago.

“The only thing I remembered about that public comment from years ago was residents talking about feral cats and things like that, or nobody showing up,” said Staheli, who served on the City Council at the time. “So I think it kind of fizzled out.”

Land issues in nearby Ivins have sparked public furor on occasion, but Mayor Chris Hart said he is fairly stern and doesn’t let things get out of hand. On several occasions, he said, the council chambers have been packed and overflow crowds have thronged the foyer and outside the building, some of them carrying signs.

“If there’s a group with signs, I say, ‘OK everybody, hold up your signs right now so we can see who you are and what you think, and that’s the last time we want to see them.’ And so they [put them away].”