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Archive for Thursday, January 2, 2003

Decorum debate

January 2, 2003

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Free speech and expressing opinions don't have to include rude or disruptive behavior.

Maybe the proposal discussed at Monday's meeting wasn't the right answer, but Mayor Sue Hack deserves applause for trying to maintain a certain level of decorum at Lawrence City Commission meetings.

At Hack's request, city staff members drew up a proposal that would have prohibited shouting, applause and sign-carrying at commission meetings. The proposed rules drew protests from a sign-carrying crowd that contended the plan would infringe on its free speech rights. After some discussion, commissioners decided to drop the matter.

The rules, as proposed, may not be necessary, but it is important for city commission meetings to be orderly and nonthreatening. Commissioners may not see a problem, but the presence of signs -- which may or may not be accompanied by an unruly crowd -- can be intimidating to some people who want to speak on an issue.

One of the protesters at Monday's meeting declared it is the duty of commissioners "to listen to all forms of expression." Freedom of speech is an important right, but there are limits. There is no reason commissioners -- or anyone else at a commission meeting -- should have to deal with offensive signs or disrespectful behavior. It's not unreasonable to expect people who want to express opinions to do so in an orderly way. If, as one protester suggested Monday, they are too shy to come to the microphone, they can write a letter or send an e-mail. There is no need to be disruptive to make a point.

Mayor Hack had the right goal in mind when she suggested the decorum rules. The city's business should be conducted in an atmosphere that is civil and businesslike. If people feel the need to carry signs, they can carry them outside the city commission chambers where they won't block anyone's view or create an intimidating atmosphere. It also should be noted that a catchy or sarcastic slogan on a sign is a poor substitute for a thoughtful, rationally written or spoken statement on a topic being considered by the commission.

Faced with a lack of support from the public and other commissioners, the mayor graciously withdrew her effort to legislate manners to those who come before the commission. She should nonetheless know she has significant support from the public for case-by-case efforts to maintain the proper decorum at commission meetings.

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