Sunday, May 26, 2024

Xavier Dietrich speaks at a Cambridge City Council meeting July 30, 2019. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A long-standing City Council rule forbidding personal criticism and other types of discourteous comment at meetings may be in jeopardy after the state’s highest court ruled that local governments can’t limit speech just because it’s considered rude. The Supreme Judicial Court decision March 7 struck down a Southborough “civility code” that required speakers at town selectmen meetings to be “respectful and courteous” and avoid yelling and  “rude, personal and slanderous remarks.”

The ruling, in a suit brought by a resident threatened with removal for her criticism of selectmen’s violation of the state Open Meeting Law, said the Southborough regulation violated Massachusetts free speech guarantees. “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 without violating … the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which provide for a robust protection of public criticism of governmental action and officials,” the decision said.

Cambridge’s civility code is set down in City Council Rule 38, “Rules of Courtesy.” It prohibits speakers from “uttering fighting words, slander, speeches invasive of the privacy of individuals, unreasonably loud or repetitive speech, and/or speech so disruptive of City Council proceedings that the legislative process is substantially interrupted.”

“All persons shall confine their remarks to the question under debate and avoid personalities,” the regulation says. The instruction to “avoid personalities” apparently alludes to criticizing anyone by name.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui didn’t immediately respond when asked Monday how the SJC ruling would affect the City Council rule. This story will be updated when she answers.

The council began to limit oral speech more sharply by content under mayors in 2015 and 2016. In prior years, the council limited public comment to items on its agenda but did not require that all speech be positive or neutral, nor did it prohibit the mention of individual councillors. In an April 2016 meeting, then mayor E. Denise Simmons stopped activist James Williamson from trying to speak to a letter on the agenda from councillor Dennis Carlone, saying voters and citizens deserved to know who was hosting a trip to the Middle East.

“No personalities, Mr. Williamson,” Simmons said, soon telling Williamson that his time for comment had run out.

Simmons said after the meeting that she stopped Williamson because “It’s sort of like name-calling, and I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said. “You’re supposed to speak through the chair and to the chair. You’re not really even supposed to say nice things, you know, but I try to be a little relaxed on that.”

Siddiqui has rarely invoked the regulation. In one case, she cut off councillor Quinton Zondervan when he said he disagreed with former police commissioner Branville Bard Jr.’s view of “the role of policing in our society.” He was commenting on a council resolution wishing Bard well in his new job as head of a new police department at Johns Hopkins University.

Siddiqui told Zondervan that saying he disagreed with Bard was “just not appropriate” and added: “I just don’t know where your manners are.” Councillors E. Denise Simmons and Marc McGovern backed her up. Zondervan had often tangled with Bard in debate over efforts to lessen the scope of police responsibility in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

His remarks on Bard’s departure were tame compared with the arguments that led to the SJC decision on the Southborough board of selectmen’s “civility code.” At a selectmen’s meeting on Dec. 4, 2018, Louise Barron, a town resident and frequent critic, criticized the board’s numerous violations of the state Open Meeting Law – confirmed by findings of the state attorney general.

When she said the selectmen were “volunteers” but “you’ve still broken the law,” the chair cut her off, accusing her of “slander,” The exchange grew more heated and the chair threatened to go into recess, ending public comment. Barron retorted: “Look, you need to stop being a Hitler,” according to the meeting transcript quoted in the SJC decision. Barron left the meeting after the chair threatened to have her removed.

The SJC decision upheld Barron’s claim that her state free speech rights had been violated, and it struck down the board of selectmen rules that supported the chair’s actions.