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Regulating content of public comments goes too far

A functioning civil society is a balancing act between freedom and responsibility.

Every American is born with immense freedoms which are enumerated and protected within the constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The linchpin of those freedoms is the first amendment protections on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and the freedom to peacefully assemble and seek redress of grievances from the government.

With those immense freedoms, comes immense responsibility which, by necessity, limits these freedoms for the sake of public safety. In the 1919 Schenck vs. United States decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously identified a limit on freedom of speech in regards to speech that incited violence and disregard for human life such as “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

The Rib Lake Village Board recently enacted a set of new rules regarding visitor conduct at board meetings, specifically during the public comment period of the agenda.

While the board is well within its rights to regulate when and how people may address the board during the public comment period and to have people removed if they become disorderly, the new rules go too far in seeking to restrict the content of people’s comments specifically to items on the agenda.

The intent of a public comment period is to give community members an opportunity to bring up issues which may generate agenda items at future board meetings. Public comment provides a chance for face-to-face communication between residents and the members of the board.

The new rules were put in place largely because members of the village board are tired of hearing from Ken and Renee Norgaard.

The couple routinely uses the public comment period to address the board about not being fully reimbursed for a tax overpayments from 2006 through 2010 and to repeat a laundry list of real and perceived grievances they have against village employees and board members including allegations of wrongdoing.

The board members’ frustrations are easy to understand. However, imposing strict rules seeking to regulate the content of people’s comments goes too far. Fundamentally changing the nature of interaction between the board and the community because you find the comments of a few people to be annoying or offensive is troubling to democracy and opens the door to costly legal challenges.

Rather than seeking to silence criticism, elected officials should instead respectfully listen during the allotted period of comment and then move on with the business of the meeting and not allow emotions to cloud judgement when it comes to fundamental freedoms.

Imposing limits on what people can say during public comment periods is an affront to liberty. The village board should reconsider the rules regulating the content of public comments.