It hasn’t been fun to be a member of the St. George City Council lately.
People have come to council meetings and called the council members all sorts of names (including “communists” or “woke”). They get lectured about drag shows.
Mayor Michele Randall got fed up with such hectoring. Little of it has to do with the decisions she and the council make about the running of a city of around 100,000 people. So earlier this month, Randall did away with the public comment portion of the City Council’s meetings.
“Public comment has turned into the same people saying the same things, mostly regarding social issues,” Randall told The Tribune’s Mark Eddington, shortly after announcing the decision at the council’s May 4 meeting. “It was starting to get very divisive and in no way reflected the Dixie Spirit.”
Here’s the rub: The “Dixie Spirit,” whatever that may be, isn’t mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech and the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” — divisive or not — are enshrined in the Constitution, right there in the First Amendment.
A good many reporters have seen first-hand the sting of what Randall and her fellow St. George leaders have experienced. At meetings — whether city councils, county councils or school boards — they have covered, particularly during the recent unpleasantness with COVID-19, there were some folks eager to disrupt with yelling, chanting, conspiracy mongering, placards and and an abundance of generally disrespectful, nonproductive comments.
Sometimes such antics have caused the premature end of a meeting, or prevented other citizens from hearing what officials were doing and saying. Once in a great while, a protester gets ejected or even arrested.
Today this is one of the costs Americans pay for living in a democracy — the thing Winston Churchill called “the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”
Leaders in St. George aren’t alone in dealing with such public hostility. “It’s happening at all levels of governance – local, state and congressional representatives are having this issue,” Utah Valley University assistant political science professor Zoe Nemerever told Eddington.
Anger about national issues — fueled by the partisan cable-TV and internet silos from which many people get their information — often bleeds into local conversations, as the folks in St. George have discovered.
“If people are coming to talk about things that are just culture war igniters and have nothing to do with city business, it doesn’t help us productively run the city,” said Dannielle Larkin, a member of the council.
Shutting down public comment isn’t going to make it go away. Neither is requiring the public to send their comments in writing — which is what Randall has offered as an alternative, though she added that such comments would not be read aloud or distributed to council members in their work packets.
Some government bodies lead their meetings with an open public comment period. They set a fair but firm time limit on all speakers, make a request that everyone keep a civil tongue, and let everybody talk until they’ve exhausted themselves — and, after that, the board can get on with the people’s business.
It’s not exactly a new idea. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis established what’s now called the counterspeech doctrine. Brandeis wrote in an opinion that, in the face of harmful speech, “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
It’s not a perfect solution, and some would call it idealistic. Some “harmful speech,” like obscenity and hate speech, isn’t so easily countered by more speech. The hope is that, if everyone gets their moment to speak, everyone will hear each other’s viewpoints — something that happens less frequently these days, as people retreat to their self-contained bubbles on the right or left.
Those commenting should remember that the officials they are so frustrated with are, in fact, people — and at the local level, their neighbors. Additionally, these public servants are often volunteers. Yes, every community member’s voice should be heard, but no matter how intensely felt one’s point of view is, civility in delivering it is vital.
Most importantly, government officials, in St. George or elsewhere, have to remember that they are doing the people’s business — and some of those people are going to get mad, and want to say so. Doing so is also fundamental to democracy.
In those moments, they may want to heed Thomas Jefferson’s wise words: “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”