Civil Rights

Eroding first amendment rights: Rhode Island town councils consider ‘decorum ordinances’

“…what this is going to do is create a climate that will be a civil climate so that people can come up who maybe speak and offer a different opinion,” said Narragansett Town Council President Pro-Tem Jill Lawler. “It’s been very difficult for people to do that. The silent majority that has been talked about often does not show up
Photo for Eroding first amendment rights: Rhode Island town councils consider ‘decorum ordinances’

Published on October 9, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist

“…what this is going to do is create a climate that will be a civil climate so that people can come up who maybe speak and offer a different opinion,” said Narragansett Town Council President Pro-Tem Jill Lawler. “It’s been very difficult for people to do that. The silent majority that has been talked about often does not show up at these meetings because they do not want to be ridiculed.”

Two town councils in Rhode Island considered “decorum ordinances” in recent weeks. A decorum ordinance “would bar members of the public from making ‘personal’ or ‘slanderous’ remarks, or becoming ‘boisterous,’ during the public comment portion of Council meetings,” said the ACLU of Rhode Island in a statement issued in advance of a Narragansett Town Council meeting.

The Exeter Town Council passed their decorum ordinance in early September, but the Narragansett Town Council voted the idea down late Monday night. It is unknown if other town and city councils in Rhode Island are considering such ordinances.

The ACLU letter acknowledged the the right of councils to ban disruptive behavior, but in critiquing the proposal, wrote:

“[W]hen does a pointed criticism of a Council member for their stand on an issue become ‘personal’? Would a member of the public’s praise of a police officer for her off-duty organizing of a community event be considered out of bounds as a ‘personal remark’? In light of the extremely heavy legal burden that public officials bear in pursuing suits for defamation, how often will sharp or rhetorical disapproval of a Council member inappropriately be deemed ‘slanderous’? When will impassioned comments of a speaker – whether out of enthusiasm or anger – become improperly ‘boisterous’ and subject him or her to removal from the meeting? As these scenarios suggest, the recommended proposal would give the Town Council President virtually unbridled power to cut off speakers and control the content of what is supposed to be an open forum for public comment.

“In one of its most seminal free speech rulings, the United States Supreme Court noted this country’s ‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’ But, as the Court emphasized, ‘it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions, and this opportunity is to be afforded for vigorous advocacy no less than abstract discussion.'”

At Monday night’s Narragansett Town Council meeting the political divisions between the three person majority and the two person minority on the five member town council were stark, and the attacks on each other became personal, driving a constituent to comment, “I didn’t come to the town council meeting to listen to you five babies cry, because that’s what you sound like.” [Video 20, below]

From watching this meeting, it’s the Town Council that has an issue with decorum, not the members of the public in attendance.

The Narragansett Town Council was considering a resolution to instruct the Town Solicitor to craft legislation, based on Exeter’s, that would limit free speech during public meetings. The resolution was introduced by Town Council President Pro-Tem Jill Lawler. In her comments introducing her resolution, Lawler misrepresented the ACLU’s position, and said her legislation was intended to protect the “silent majority,” that is, those who fear speaking their minds at public hearings for fear of being ridiculed.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to come to a point to put this on but recently behavior in town meetings has come to a point that that it is very heated,” said Lawler. “This motion is being put on to have our town solicitor to take a look at the ordinances currently in effect with Exeter.

“As you probably all saw today the ACLU did write a letter. In their letter they stated that it was legal for the Town of Narragansett to be able to develop a meeting protocol, parameters,” continued Lawler, disingenuously. “So thank you to the ACLU for acknowledging the fact that what this agenda item is is certainly legal, but they also said they didn’t like it.

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“Okay. So what this is going to do is create a climate that will be a civil climate so that people can come up who maybe speak and offer a different opinion. It’s been very difficult for people to do that. The silent majority that has been talked about often does not show up at these meetings because they do not want to be ridiculed,” concluded Lawler. “So with this we’re ensuring that all First Amendment rights are protected while keeping our Town Meeting civil.”

This opened up a long discussion. Councilmember Jesse Pugh began by correcting Lawler’s mis-characterization of the ACLU letter.

“First of all,” began Pugh, “the ACLU letter did not say that we could do whatever we want to restrict free speech at Town Council meetings. “It said the Council has a right to set reasonable restrictions on how the open floor period of its meetings is conducted, such as limiting the amount of time people can speak, and certainly can prohibit disruptive behavior…

“It’s interesting,” continued Pugh, “that the one motion that will violate constitutional rights, is saved for the very end of the meeting, at 11 o’clock, when half the people have left…

“What you’re seeing here is the kind of thing that you do, when you know that you’ve lost support from the public. Instead of listening to what people have to say, you try to block out all the negative feedback. Instead of taking in different perspectives, you double down, by silencing dissent.”

“This is the sort of motion that really should come as no surprise to people who have been watching these meetings and paying attention,” continued Pugh. “We saw this strategy early on, when the council majority voted to move open forum from the beginning of our meetings to the very end, thus making it more difficult, for young and old alike, to speak their minds.

Council President Matthew Mannix, said Pugh, “lied to the public that night when he said that this would be a temporary move to accommodate the former Town Manager’s transition. When Councilor [Patrick] Murray and I proposed that we move open forum back to the beginning of the meeting a few weeks later, this same majority refused.”

Note that the Narragansett Town Council ended this meeting at 11:15pm, cutting public comment off. [Video 23, below]

Pugh went on to accused Council President Mannix of routinely breaking Town Council rules by refusing to open first and second readings of proposed ordinances to public comment.

Town Council Patrick Murray said that the ordinance was redundant, because laws presently on the books sufficiently address the concerns of the council.

President Pro Tem Lawler hit back, saying the ordinance does not prevent anyone from speaking, but sets “behavior guidelines.”

“It’s not okay to incite and audience,” said Lawler. “It’s not okay to have tumultuous behavior. It’s almost getting to, in past meetings that we’ve had, disorderly conduct happening… You talk about disruption, that’s what we’ve been having. These meetings have been disruptive. So this is an attempt to make sure that people can speak their minds, but do it in a way that you can have a civil debate. We’ve lost the ability to have a civil debate in this council…”

“Is it reciprocal?” asked Murray.

“Of course,” replied Lawler.

“That’s the problem,” said Pugh. “One councilor doesn’t get to define what’s acceptable behavior.”

“Right. Who’s the gatekeeper?” asked Murray. One person’s insult could be another person’s, ‘You know, that guy’s got a good thought.'”

“Patrick,” said Lawler, “I think we all know when people are being insulted, and using names and things. Come on.”

“Well, you know what?” said Murray. “You get elected, and you know, people don’t agree with me. I mean, I’ve had 300 people boo at me. I mean, you got to take your lumps. I mean, you want to play lumberjack, you’ve got to handle your end of the log. That’s what being up here is about.”

“I’m not a lumberjack,” said Lawler. “I have no problem with people disagreeing with me at all… [The City Solicitor]’s initial speech was perfect on this. We have to have respect both ways…”

“But you can’t regulate human behavior,” said Murray.

“Yes you can,” said Lawler. “The Town of Exeter has an ordinance that I think is a good ordinance as far as meting decorum.”

“So you’re actually trying to ban insults from Town Council meetings?” asked Pugh.

“I’m not – Oh Jesse, stop putting words in my mouth,” said Lawler. “If you read the motion it specifically says ‘civility… keeping decorum… while being able to have everyone’s first amendment rights be focused on…

“But one person’s opinion, is another person’s dissent, is another person’s lack of decorum,” said Murray. “So how do you regulate human behavior? You can’t. The government tried it several times, it doesn’t work. Each one of us are different.”

“Have you ever been to the State House?” asked Lawler. “I don’t think you see the bahavior at the State House that you see here.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Murray. “I don’t think you want to use our State House as an example of decorum.”

Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown) was invited to speak on this subject.

“I have to say that what this Council, and what this Town is lacking right now, is leadership,” said Tanzi. “I’ve been attending these meetings since 2000, when I first moved to Rhode Island, and I’ve never sen it like this. It takes restraint, poise, in order to prevent it from going where it is now. And I hope that we can each reflect on that, and take an honest account of how we behave as elected public leaders in these forums.

“As far as what I’ve experienced up at the State House, we do allow signs in hearing rooms, and out in the hallways, we have very vocal protests. Within the chamber we do not allow signs. And we would never have someone managing a meeting who allowed themselves or others to be treated in a manner that I’ve witnessed week after week here in the Town Hall…”

Then the Council turned to public comment.

This speaker made the case for listening to each other.

Council President Mannix revealed that the previous speaker was the spouse of Councilor Pugh.

Narragansett resident Carlene Towne noted that the proposed ordinance was lifted almost verbatim from the Exeter ordinance, except for the addition about banning weapons, including sticks. “Are you saying that my folding yardstick can be used as a weapon?” asked Towne, waving her yardstick around. “will you consider my knitting needles and scissors weapons of mass destruction and ban them from future meetings?” asked Towne.

“Believe me when I say that we proponents of Democracy fight with sound, logical arguments,” said Towne. “Not with sticks, knitting needles or scissors.”

Council President Mannix was chided by Narragansett resident Gloia for “talking down to [Councilmember Pugh] about what his wife was saying. That’s really not proper decorum.

“I want everybody to know that I’m wearing a crown today because Mr Mannix, at almost every meeting, calls us the angry mob,” said Gloria. “And a couple of meetings ago, he told me that I was the Queen of the Mob. He told me multiple time, ‘You are the Queen of the Mob.’ Therefore, my crown tonight.

“So, things work both ways… As everyone has said, you’re the leader. Stop calling us names. Stop telling people that you’re tired of their nonsense when they come up to speak. Stop telling people that our information is incorrect, and yours is correct…

“You always get the last word, because you’re the President. So give us respect first. Show us how to be respectful and you will get respect back. And that was a lesson you should have learned when you were a little child…”

At 11pm, Council President Mannix held a vote to extend the meeting 15 minutes.

Then the Council President’s brother, Chris Mannix, spoke. He said that his life was threatened at a previous meeting.

Councilmember Pugh immediately accused Chris Mannix of lying for political benefit.

“That was a lie Chris, and you know it,” said Pugh.

“It was a police matter,” shouted Chris Mannix from the back of the room, somewhat disruptively. “Thank you for your grandstanding, Jesse.”

It was during the back and forth between Mannix and Pugh that the woman came to the podium and said, “I didn’t come to the town council meeting to listen to you five babies cry, because that’s what you sound like.”

The vote was called. Lawler voted for her resolution, Pugh, Murray and Council President Mannix voted against, while Richard Lema, who was silent throughout the debate, abstained.

Then, with people still wishing to speak, the Council declined to extend the meeting for an additional 15 minutes, and voted to adjourn.

Exeter Town Council

Passing the ordinance in Exeter was a much simpler affair. No one from the public spoke against or for the ordinance. Exeter Town Council President Calvin Ellis introduced a pair of related ordinances, one attempting to define the rules of decorum, and the other, as far as I can understand, extending the powers of the Town Sergeant and Town Constables to enforce decorum at the meetings.

Ellis, Vice President Francis DiGregorio and Councilmembers Robert Conn and Manuel Adams for the ordinances. Councilmember Daniel Patterson voted against.

Here’s the video:

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