Just in time for next week’s Town Meeting, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has clarified what constitutes appropriate commentary during public meetings.
The case, Barron v. Kolenda, was brought about by Southborough, Massachusetts resident, Louise Barron, after she was asked to leave a December 2018 town meeting by the board chair due to what was deemed inappropriate language that was in violation of the town’s guidelines. Barron had accused the board of spending “like drunken sailors” and told the board chair, Daniel Kolenda, “to stop being a Hitler.” In calling for her removal, Barron alleged the board violated her constitutional rights to “free speech, free assembly, and to petition their representatives for redress of grievances.”
In the March 7, 2023 decision, the state supreme court sided with the plaintiff, determining that Southborough’s public commentary policy was unconstitutional. As noted in a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, “civility…can’t be required in a public comment session of a governmental meeting.”
Lexington has long had its own guidelines for civil discourse during public meetings. Like Southborough, the ground rules – including “Show respect for others” and “Speak as you would like to be spoken to” – are just that: recommendations, not legally binding statutes. As to whether the recent court ruling will affect the content or delivery of Lexington’s public meetings in the future, Town officials and other community representatives seem to think not, at least not significantly.
Jill Hai, chair of the Town’s Select Board, noted that she has already amended her opening remarks for meetings. “I used to say we have a zero-tolerance policy for disparaging remarks written or spoken about any person, committee, group, or their motive,” she said. As of last week, she has adopted a less aggressive tone with the following statement: “I would like to remind everyone that we are all neighbors and working together for the best interests of our community. [We] request that all members of the public and board speak with respect and without disparaging any person or group or their motives.”
Beyond softening her language, Ms. Hai doesn’t anticipate a substantial shift. “I think that the technical impact will be that we will slightly tweak the language that we use,” but little else. She is not sure what effect, if any, there will be on Town Meeting.
Town Manager Jim Malloy believes it benefits everyone “if they are able to express their disagreements in coherent discussions and not revert to name-calling such as happened in the Southborough case.”
“People listen more intently and hear more clearly what the disagreement may be when it is presented this way,” he said in a statement. “Reverting to name-calling, getting overly emotional, etc. only deteriorates the communicated value of any disagreement and lessens the chance that the person making the point will actually be heard.”
Valerie Overton, president of LexPride, agrees for the most part with both Malloy and Hai. “I think it’s unlikely to change our approach or process or public comment in Town Meeting very much,” she said. But as to the various committee meetings, including the Select Board, Planning Board and others, “those might be a little bit more of a challenge just because sometimes people do come and they’re upset sometimes.” She also suggested that it might have a chilling effect on board and committee chairs who feel less empowered to warn people to moderate their behavior. Yet, overall, like Hai she noted that for the most part, “people do already make an effort…to behave respectfully.”