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Editorial Board: What happens if school board meetings are only shouting matches?

Self-government can only function if we do not reward threats and violence.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started. The group protesting against masks being required in schools removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room to over flowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting in Provo, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

This is how it starts. Or, perhaps, how it ends.

Public life and public service in the United States, in Utah, in Salt Lake County, are getting nastier, more personal, sometimes even more violent. School board and county council meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches where arrests were made or meetings had to be adjourned for the safety of those involved.

The private homes of public officials have been picketed and the chief election officer of Salt Lake County is hiring more security for her office in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Those who go to the trouble of running for local and state office are rewarded with confrontations, personal threats and cyber bullying that targets not only the officials but also members of their families.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. This is increasingly an atmosphere where democracy cannot work. And it is frightening to think this is what some of us want.

It is up to all of us to stand against an approach to self-government where decisions are made by those who shout the loudest, do the most damage or carry the biggest weapons.

Some legislation, such as the 2021 Utah law banning picketing at private homes, is appropriate. Public officials who are the targets of threats or intimidation should report it to law enforcement.

But the real solution to this problem is less legal than it is cultural. Democracy works through free expression of ideas, and that does not include threatening or violent acts designed to stop those you disagree with from expressing their ideas. Or doing their jobs.

We must not devolve into a society where the public-spirited, those willing to take on the sometimes long, dull, frustrating, back-and-forth business of self-government, are too afraid to run for or serve in office because they fear for their emotional and physical safety and those of their loved ones.

Yes, American history includes some awful examples of political violence, including deadly duels and U.S. senators beating one another with sticks. And that unpleasantness that began in 1861. But we had reason to think we had left all of that behind.

Then we started to see people with guns taking over federal wildlife refuges, standing in the galleries of state capitol buildings and storming the U.S. Capitol when they didn’t like the actions taken by duly elected or appointed government officials.

Even where there is no armed violence, people who once would not have looked cross-eyed at a crossing guard now seem to feel justified in shouting down county commissioners and school board members just because of decisions they don’t approve of.

The disquieting trend can be traced, in part, to the cultural upset caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the unwillingness of far too many people to understand that the proper response to a public health crisis is public action. Chatter on far-right social media and extremist broadcasting has spread lies and a rage that has left us with a death toll and damage to our economy and educational system that was all much worse than it needed to be.

But there is also a Trumpist, fascist thread in our nation, our communities, that rises from a fear of the growing diversity of our society. It is a fear deep enough that a growing number — though still, fortunately, a minority — feels the need to take up arms and issue threats rather than trust the process of open debate and free elections.

Democracy can only work if those who lose an election can have faith that there will be another election. That power, temporarily, flows to those who make the best arguments and turn out the most votes, not those who are willing and able to apply the most brute force and shout the loudest.

Even if democracy in Utah and in the United States does not completely fall away, we still do not want to live in a society where only the physically brave and heavily armed can hold office or have influence.

We want it to be normal for voters, citizens, everyone, to approach their elected officials, in public meetings and on street corners, to say what’s on their mind. That is something we will all lose if too many public officials have cause to fear interactions with the public.

The world today stands in respect and awe of the leaders and people of Ukraine because they are not attacking democracy but giving their all to defending it. They did not seek this bloodshed and every indication is that they will lay down their arms and go back to life as normal the moment the Russian threat ends.

Utahns and Americans need not put their lives on the line to defend their democracy. At least, not yet. But all of us do have the responsibility to stand for a peaceful exercise of self-government that does not give an unfair and undeserved advantage to those who seek power through anger, threats and violence.