May 14, 2010

Our View: Falmouth has a right
to set ground rules for debate

Every arena has its rules. In court, no one talks to the judge without standing up to show respect, whether they feel respectful or not.

In the Legislature, members refer to each other as "my good friend" even when they'd rather rumble in the parking lot than talk.

Even this newspaper, which is dedicated to robust debate in the marketplace of ideas, won't let people call each other names on our letters page.

These could all be seen as limits on free speech, but they are limits that help people speak about what's really important, which is the business at hand and not the personalities involved.

The town of Falmouth is attempting to introduce similar rules for its public discourse to prevent one resident from being abusive at Town Council meetings. The town is running into understandable concern from civil libertarians who don't want to see a citizen's right to petition his government squashed by officials who don't want to hear what he has to say.

The town has a fine line to walk, but it's one that can be walked without violating anyone's rights.

Freedom of speech does not mean that anyone can say anything at any time. There is no reason that a town resident can't be asked to express deep dissatisfaction with a council decision without calling the councilors names. Verbal harassment is not protected free speech.

There are other forums, like political campaigns, where debate can get more personal. But a public body should be able to maintain enough decorum to do its business, as long as the rules don't go too far and stop someone from speaking up at all.


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