Free Speech – VS – Censorship

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees citizens certain rights. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to partition the Government  for a redress of grievances.

Intended or not, there were some very insensitive comments made by Commissioner Moffett in the October 26th Commission Meeting regarding diversity in the West Palm Beach Police Department. Unlike private citizens, elected officials actions are subject to public scrutiny, as they should be. A poor choice of words, used by an elected official, opens the door to subjective points of view and judgements as to what the comments mean to the eye of the beholder. An African American speaker had some strong comments in that meeting and he was denounced by the mayor as disrespectful. Different points of view stems from culture, life experiences, environment and any number of events that take place in people’s lives. Music to some, is noise to others . . . what’s disrespectful expression to some, is assertive expression to others. Too often individuals are unconcerned about a rock that hits someone else because they’re not the recipient of such condescending remarks or actions but see’s much fault with individuals who expresses an offense to the act or actions! Considering the cause will do much to better understand the effect.

In the November 23rd Commission Meeting, Commissioner Ryan and Mayor Muoio briefly discussed the possibility of moving “public comment” from the beginning of the meeting to the end  and the reasons stated was, a concern for children and visitors hearing comments from the public that was deemed as being obnoxious. There is no justification for entertaining the thought of prohibiting visitors from hearing something that someone else thinks is inappropriate for them to hear. The primary purpose of public meetings is to conduct the business of the city and the meetings are adult meetings and should not be tailored for the ears of children or to censor the public. There are questionable behaviors displayed in commission meetings, coming right from the dais.

Censorship is the suppression of free speech and free speech is, the right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government or anyone else as long as the content is not threatening or profane language, slander or abuse of the allotted time to speak. To move public comment to the end of the meetings, with the intent of the speaker facing an empty audience, is censorship to both public speakers and individuals who attend the meetings. It is an intended punishment to speakers, that’s motivated by the content of their comments. If speakers were complimentary, that would be acceptable and there would be no suggestion to push public speakers to the end of the meeting and that confirms the move is motivated solely because of an undesirable content.

Public Comment is intended for speakers to air grievances or pleasure regarding city business, public officials or anyone who conducts any part of business for the city. When private individuals are the target of comments in public meetings and letters to the editor about the writers perception of a private individual’s comments in a meeting, shows a lack of tolerance while expecting total tolerance of ones own expression and not expecting a warranted backlash from those who feel offended . .  is self serving.

Who determines what’s offensive to someone else? Who decides how an offended person should respond to something  that is offensive to them? Who’s declaration of what’s disrespectful counts and who’s doesn’t? Who determines what’s hateful and what isn’t? A quote from ACLU Legal Director, Stephen Shapiro, as he spoke with NPR News recently, stated:  “The First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes. You don’t need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated. You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive . . because that is when the majority will wield it’s power to censor or suppress and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that”. 

The US Supreme Court ruled on a Freedom of Speech case in 2011 . . . Albert Snyder vs Westboro Baptist Church. The high court’s ruling was 8 to 1, in favor of the church and their right to freedom of speech with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissenting. I think most would agree that the church’s intrusion at funerals and their remarks were insensitive at a time of grief and Justice John Roberts agreed the comments were hurtful but stated, “we cannot react to the pain by punishing the speaker”. Justice Roberts also said, “Debate on public issues should be robust, uninhibited and wide open”.              

Mayor Muoio needs to revise the city’s Civility & Decorum code, then “fairly” enforce the rules on members of the public as well as every person sitting on the dais and eliminate “content” as a reason for enforcement on some and not others. There has been disrespect to the mayor by commissioners, disrespect from the mayor to commissioners, a commissioner abruptly leaving a meeting in anger, prior to adjournment twice, a public speaker pounding the podium, declaring his community looks like a “Sh*t Hole, another speaker, who was recently awarded $50,000 from the city due to a confrontation with police, yelled, “this is bull sh*t during her public comment, another speaker warned that someone is going to get shot on his front lawn if his personal information is revealed, due to the city’s compromised public records debacle and that was said during public comment.

A former police captain was fired for indiscretions on duty, with a subordinate officer but was pre-scheduled to speak in a commission meeting about the downtown district. He was allowed to come into the chamber in uniform and armed to do a 15 minute presentation, in spite of being terminated at that time. No expressed feelings of fear and no questions as to why a terminated cop is in the chambers armed. Another speaker referred to someone as a “slut”. The mayor did not interrupt, chastise, warn, tell any of those individuals  to sit down, she didn’t threaten to have them removed from the chambers or accuse them of being disrespectful and every one of the individuals were White.

At some point and time we must look at what’s in front of us . . . It is what it is and we must say what it is. It would be nice to see a greater effort to understand the feelings of others and especially how they got there. The face of disparity and selective enforcement in city commission meetings and anywhere else, is ugly and causing division and does not coincide with a sincere desire for civility in public meetings or society by and large.