Local elected officials routinely ignore and violate part of 1st Amendment

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OPINION — Here’s an Independence Day quiz intended for our local elected officials in Fayette County — for the city councils and the county commission and the Board of Education.

The quiz is about what local officials in their public meetings seem to have overlooked, or forgotten or just plain ignored about the last clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mayors, council members, commissioners and school board members, you all know about freedom of religion and its free exercise, about freedom of speech and of the press. Some of you worry about the right of the people peaceably to assemble.

Here’s the final right expressly listed in the First Amendment: “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I have been covering and reporting on local government meetings since 1970. Yep, that’s a long time and a lot of elected officials. And I have observed a common reaction of elected officials (many if not most) during public meetings throughout that half century.

They gavel down and even threaten to remove members of the public who dare to speak their actual grievances about public officials.

I have seen it personally during the past year at the following meetings: Fayette County Board of Education (the most egregious), the Fayetteville City Council, the Peachtree City Council, the Fayette County Commission. It likely happened at the Tyrone Council as well, but I haven’t personally witnessed it.

Why likely? Because that’s just how public meetings of elected bodies operate.

You may argue that they all have set aside (more about that insult later) a limited amount of time for “the public” to have “comments.”

But the deal is this: They will not allow name-specific criticism of any person on the public payroll under their jurisdiction, elected, appointed or otherwise. They cut you off if you try. If you persist, they tell you to shut up or they will have a law enforcement officer remove you from the room.

At the recent Fayetteville City Council meeting, it got worse.

Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson (who is a good man and whom I like and respect) gaveled down a public speaker who began to criticize the Fayette County Development Authority. The FCDA was the applicant for a controversial annexation and rezoning for a mid-county data center next to long-established residential neighborhoods. The mayor ruled she was “out of order.”

The woman tried to continue about the FCDA. Mayor Johnson said if she continued, he would have a police officer remove her from the council meeting room. After asking, “What did I do?” she sat down.

She had a “grievance” about the government authority that was the official applicant for the rezoning. A meeting room was packed with folks who opposed the FCDA request.

Under threat of removal (and possible arrest) this member of the public — speaking in measured words, without visible anger and using no curse words or obscenities — was muzzled and her First Amendment right to voice her grievance during the designated time and place was trampled on.

What do these people in power think a “grievance” is? Here’s a dictionary definition: “a real or imagined wrong or other cause for complaint or protest, especially unfair treatment …. an official statement of a complaint over something believed to be wrong or unfair … a feeling of resentment over something believed to be wrong or unfair.”

In other words, it is by definition something negative. And according to the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution, the mayor and council are obligated to hear that grievance. To speak that grievance is a constitutional right, in clear text and without boundaries.

The only person in that meeting who was “out of order” — out of constitutional order — was Mayor Ed Johnson.

But he is not the only one out of order.

The Fayette County Board of Education routinely silences criticism from members of the public. Let a parent bring up a specific grievance about a principal or a school disciplinary problem, and the gavel comes down with a bang.

The Peachtree City Council also dislikes criticism about city personnel or applicants for a zoning change during a public meeting.

Again, who do they think they are that they can routinely set strict limits on what a “grievance” can be? The First Amendment sets no boundaries on what is a proper, allowable grievance and what grievance is “out of order.”

I can hear elected officials argue, “If we let just any grievance be aired, no telling what will be said and how long we will have to be there.” Amen, brothers and sisters, preach that First Amendment! It is your elected privilege to listen to the people who put you in that position.

More about that “set aside” time that elected officials ordain for the public that elected them. Here’s the truth: Most officials don’t want to hear it. That’s why they move “public comments” to near the end of the public meetings, or set strict, timed limits on how long somebody can speak (they have no such limits on their own talk time, though many wish they would), and make speakers sign up before the meeting begins. What an insult!

Two evenings a month, they could make the time to serve the public by simply listening to the public — as long as the speakers want to come, let them speak. But, sadly, many elected officials — who campaigned for your vote at all hours and for many days — once elected would rather you didn’t disrupt their twice-a-month evening schedule.

To any attorneys in the audience, I suggest this is a mostly untouched area of First Amendment jurisprudence, ripe for precedents to be adjudicated. Unlike the Second Amendment, the text of the First Amendment is easily understood, without limiting qualifications: “To petition the government for a redress of grievances.” By definition, you could find a lot of aggrieved citizens.

People have a First Amendment right to tell the government what it’s doing wrong and to request that the wrong be righted. The biggest wrong is to gavel a member of the public down because the official dislikes the grievance being aired. And to shut them up at the 2-minute or 3-minute mark. In this democratic republic, we are under the impression that we elect public servants, not royalty who hold timed audiences.

With deep respect, I suggest to the mayors and chairpersons running these meetings, “Shut up and listen.”

[Cal Beverly has been the editor and publisher of The Citizen in Fayette County since 1993.]

16 COMMENTS

  1. Cal, you are always insightful and stimulating with your commentary.

    Sadly few in office understand what it means to serve anybody but themselves. The concept of sacrifice to serve others is lost in the pursuit of agendas and personal gain, beit fame, power or fortune.

    Three of our current council members are sad examples. Our mayor did everything possible to stop or limit Mr Destadio’s request to lengthen the comment period when the Partners Pizza mixed use issue came up. As a far reaching decision of huge impact this was certainly an issue that deserved wide open discussion. Thankfully we have two members who areas willing to be inconvenienced to listen.

  2. Thank you for this. Many of us cannot attend the meetings because of work or other responsibilities. To hear that a citizen may be unjustly muzzled is concerning. I believe these are video recorded so I’m going to take a look back. If so we need to organize and take back our rights. What lawyers are there among us who would take this on pro bono for the sake of our voice?

  3. Cal presents a compelling story and on the surface I agree with him, but issues such as these are rarely cut and dry. These issues have been litigated in the courts numerous times across the country, with varying results. Since I was not at the meeting, have not read the minutes, or viewed video, I’m going to refrain from passing judgement on this particular incident until I see all the facts.

  4. A rhetorical question here Cal, why is it we expect more / demand more from our local elected officials (city councils, commissioners, educational boards, etc.) than we do with our own state legislators and congressional representatives? In nearly all 50 state houses, as well as in Congress, the right to petition is reduced to a formality process. The procedure is to take all recognized petitions and enter them into the public record, at which point there is no obligation by the elected body to debate the matter or to even respond to the petitioner(s).

    Yet we demand more of our local leaders I see (article – potential violations). These councils and boards have numerous hearings and then are subjected to hearing from the vocal minority within our communities. These “petitioners” in some instances, engage in uncivil discourse; chiefly characterized as narrow-mindedness, avoidance of all facts, unwillingness to compromise and lastly, a lack of mutual respect. Yes, the expectations of local leaders’ runs high … but so too should be the same for their constituents who are at times, “out of order.”

  5. Cal, you nailed it!
    We live in a society, a culture that simulates dictatorship. When people in power don’t seem to like what you have the right to say about a grievance or concern, (correct or incorrect) officers who have that power can and will ignore you, shut you up or even remove you. This action causes a trickledown effect which comes from our United State President down to our local officials, organizations, and social clubs. While even under our very noses, blatant censorship (1st Amendment) throughout Facebook and the news media.
    “We the People” are no longer.

  6. Thanks, Cal, for this commentary. You are so spot on! I am presuming that the meeting you referred to was the June 30 meeting concerning the proposed data center. It appears that the decision was already made before the meeting, and the voices of those opposing this move were already drowned out before they spoke!

  7. Don’t worry about moderating, I have posted your article in Telegram with my comment. It will get a far wider audience there. It is a good article, but there lies a fundamental lack of understanding about our system of governance and that is on display with what you wrote. The executive functions of municipal government use “authorities” to sidestep the voice of the people.

  8. Thank you…accurate and on point. They have all forgotten that they are not elected to be “leaders”, they are elected to represent the constituency, and they obviously cannot do that if they refuse to hear what the constituency has to say.

  9. Dear Cal,
    While I do understand your points, they are moot with respect to the US Constitution. The first phrase in it regarding the First Amendment, expressly prohibits the Congress of the United States of America from making laws which abridge the rights of a free people. The specific document to turn to is the Georgia Constitution, Article 1, Paragraph Five:
    “ Paragraph V. Freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed. No law shall be passed to curtail or restrain the freedom of speech or of the press. Every person may speak, write, and publish sentiments on all subjects but shall be responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”

    Your points are well taken though, and it is about time someone in the “press” made them because we in Fayette County are not an anomoly. John Adams once wrote/said something to the effect “…liberty is not the freedom to do what you want,but ratther, what you ought to do…”. I believe that is captured in Georgia’s last line of Paragraph Five.

    • Good point, it’s unfortunate that our America culture has changed. Your quote “What you ought to do…” reference by John Adams was at a time when Patriots fought for Americans rights, liberties, freedoms and all the great Constitutional based on “We the People” rights. Therefore, high school (government school) good civics (American history) over the last 50 years has slowly been diminished by creating propaganda called “social discrimination”.