Posted on

Says village is within rights to limit content of comments

Vox Pop

I read the letter by Mrs. Norgaard in the Dec. 19 edition of The Star News and thought I could help clear up some common misconceptions people have about their First Amendment right to free speech in public forums.

The First Amendment guarantees all individuals on American soil the right to freely assemble and speak against their government without fear of repercussions from government officials. However, the government can place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on the right to speak and assemble if there is (1) a compelling interest; (2) the restriction isn’t content based, and (3) other reasonable avenues of expression aren’t cut off. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989).

Applying this to the public comment rules promulgated by the village of Rib Lake, it’s clear that they fall squarely within the village’s right to regulate how meetings are conducted. The village government has a compelling interest in conducting municipal business in a timely manner. Unfettered protests severely impair the village board’s ability to do its job. Therefore, limiting comments to only what’s on the published agenda is a reasonable regulation. Because residents can speak about what’s on the agenda with no restrictions on what they can say about those topics, there’s no infringement on the right to speak freely. Further, village officials left open other avenues of expression. One, the Norgaards have already thought of, a sign along a public highway. No government official can force them to take it down, and thanks to a young man named Paul Cohen, no government official can stop them from wearing clothing imprinted with messages critical of government.

In 1968, Paul Cohen showed up at a California Courthouse to testify on behalf of the defense in another case. A deputy saw his jacket with the words “F### the Draft,” and arrested him for disturbing the peace. Cohen was convicted and ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1971, the Court held that speech is not conduct. Cohen couldn’t have been guilty of disturbing the peace simply by wearing a jacket with words on it, no matter how offensive the words were. Justice Harlan, who delivered the opinion, explained that Cohen couldn’t be arrested solely on the basis of speech, unless that speech fell into one of the few unprotected categories of speech, like inciting violence. Obscenities don’t fall into the unprotected category, neither does any other political message printed on clothing. Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971). Maybe this would be a better choice for the Norgaards to express their views at public meetings where their issue is not on the agenda.

After reading Mrs. Norgaard’s letter, I’m somewhat concerned by what appears to be escalating violence against them because of their conduct at village board meetings. If they believe their property was torched and garbage is being thrown at them because of their grievances with village officials, they should contact local, state, and federal law enforcement, in writing. Hopefully, Mrs. Norgaard reported the thug who she says pointed a gun at her and mockingly pulled the trigger. That person is why so many people want to reform gun laws. If you even think something like that is an appropriate response to someone you disagree with, your IQ is far too low to own a firearm.

As for the Norgaard’s conduct at village meetings, officials can have a person removed for being out-oforder. The Rib Lake chief of police, no matter how inexperienced, is fully protected at law when removing someone who won’t follow the established rules. It’s not a violation of anyone’s First Amendment rights.

I hope this helps. — Jerri L. Cook, Rib Lake