In my home state of Massachusetts, the town of Southborough’s comment policy at town meetings partially read: “All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language and/or shouting will not be tolerated.” Southborough resident Louise Barron was accused of violating the civility policy during a town meeting and was threatened with physical removal before she left on her own accord.
In her remarks to the board, Barron had said the town was “spending like drunken sailors” and that the town board had violated the state’s open meetings law. A town official warned Barron against slandering town officials, telling her that the public comment session would be stopped. Barron refused to back down. “Look, you need to stop being a Hitler.” Barron said. “You’re a Hitler. I can say what I want.”
The board called a recess, and told Barron that she would be escorted from the meeting if she didn’t leave, precipitating her exit. That action by the Southborough government, Justice Scott L. Kafker of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote, violated protections for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, according to the Court’s ruling handed down on March 7. His majority opinion held,
“Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting. What can be required is that the public comment session be conducted in an ‘orderly and peaceable’ manner, including designating when public comment shall be allowed in the governmental meeting, the time limits for each person speaking, and rules preventing speakers from disrupting others and removing those speakers if they do.”