PORTLAND — “The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” That’s Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explaining why free speech (even unpleasant free speech) is better countered with discussion than repression.

It’s one of the basic principles at the bedrock of this country, but it’s often attacked. The latest attempt to limit free speech comes from the well-intentioned but misguided Falmouth Town Council, which wants to change its own rules so that it can cut off citizens mid-speech during a public hearing.

The specific rule at issue will allow the council to require every speaker to “confine himself or herself to the issue under debate and avoid personal attacks, name-calling, threats, and abusive, slanderous or libelous language.”

This goes too far. Each of these standards is vague and easily abused. After all, what is a “personal attack?” What is “name-calling?” Is it when a citizen disagrees with the way a politician votes? When a citizen tells a politician they’re not doing their job? Calls the politician an idiot?

I have no idea. But under the proposed rules, the council can declare any of those comments out of order and silence citizens who have a legitimate political statement. Is this the right amount of power to give to a government? The Founders of this country certainly didn’t think so.

Political speech in a public forum is some of the most important speech that the First Amendment protects. The Supreme Court: “It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminds us that “the principle of free thought (is) not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”

Falmouth citizens who believe that they are being governed poorly have a right to voice those opinions. If that right is taken away, the true loss is to our political process.

This is not to mean that there can’t be any rules governing public hearings. For example, a rule that sets a time limit on all speech might be constitutional. But the key is that the rules and the application of the rules must be neutral with regard to the content of the speech. This minimizes the risk that a speaker will be silenced because of what they’re saying.

Unfortunately, the rules proposed by the Falmouth Town Council are based on content. They give the council too much discretion and cross the line into an impermissible restriction of speech.

The Falmouth restrictions may have been motivated in part by threats against councilors. It is understandable that councilors wish to protect themselves and their families. Restrictions on violent threats are allowed under the First Amendment.

Of course, Maine already has laws in place against such things. If a violent threat is made, councilors can call the police or seek a protection order from the courts. Again, though, the Falmouth restrictions go too far. They ban all threats, not just violent ones.
For example, the proposed rules would appear to ban the threat, “I will vote against you next election.” Isn’t that exactly the kind of speech we want to protect?

Having been to my share of public meetings, I have sympathy for those who want to eliminate unpleasant comments and promote efficiency. But democracy isn’t neat and tidy. Citizen opinions aren’t neatly categorized into “offensive” and “civil.”

And we don’t give governments broad powers to silence citizens because governments have a bad habit of actually using their powers. Giving the Falmouth Town Council the discretion over which comments are acceptable and which may be silenced may make for a quieter meeting – but it will be a less democratic and therefore less American meeting.

I encourage all those interested in this issue to write to their councilors. And, yes, I encourage them to be civil. But I can’t require that , and the Falmouth Town Council certainly shouldn’t be able to either.

— Special to the Telegram

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