A community discussion of free speech rights was recently sparked by a veteran lashing out at The Dalles City Council after being told by Mayor Steve Lawrence that he and other people at a public meeting would not be allowed to comment on an agenda item.
The behavior of Joshua Farris, who identified himself as a veteran to make the point that he had taken an oath to defend constitutional rights, such as free speech, was way out of line.
However, the point he made was right on.
The city council has long made it a practice not to allow audience members to comment on any subject that is listed on the agenda and does not legally require a public hearing.
This agency, and all others, should always be accessible by the people who pay the tax dollars used to provide services. Instead of limiting opportunities for free speech, the council should bend over backwards to provide an interactive forum.
People usually come to a meeting usually because of something that’s on the agenda. It is their opportunity to address the elected body while all of their representatives are together and get their comments entered into the official record.
The Wasco County Commission is an example of an agency that respects the right of free speech. It is common practice for county officials to pause a discussion to engage with citizens, and extend the time for public comment so that everyone gets heard.
What Lawrence and consenting members of the city council don’t seem to realize — or maybe they do — is that unhindered speech is a safeguard against abuse of power.
Free speech allows the truth of a matter to surface and all sides to be explored, ensuring that decisions made by government leaders are fair and objective.
A free society is more dynamic than a closed one because the exchange of ideas sets the stage for innovation and change that makes society a better place.
This nation’s founders knew that it was important for “We the people” to express concerns and criticisms without fear of government censorship or reprisal.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution had experienced parties in power who routinely punished blasphemers, malcontents, those with unpopular ideas or those who sought to expose misdeeds.
They realized that taboos on what we can say and when we can say it prevent society from evolving because the philosophies of rulers become very rigid and people have to fear a backlash from opposing them.
The Bill of Rights, enshrined as part of the constitution, gave mankind its greatest experiment in personal liberty. It constrained government leaders and allowed the people to openly question the actions of those voted into a public office, or those administering the law.
During the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, courts began to uphold the right as unfettered, meaning that even speech society hated had to be allowed.
The city council might have shortened its meetings by quashing free speech, but they are in fact censoring citizens by denying them the right to directly address their governors.
Political dissent is something that needs to be tolerated, whether councilors are volunteering for the elected office or not.
By taking the oath to uphold the constitution, every representative of the people has pledged to respect free speech rights.
Censorship is ugly and, worse, it is subversive. Once the people accept a prohibition against being able to approach government officials of any level, free speech becomes just a symbolic talisman.
Last week, the mayor took another poke at the Chronicle for allowing Farris to explain his point of view in a second article.
“The Chronicle continues to give forums to anyone who wants to attack the council, whether or not they have legitimate claims,” wrote Lawrence in an email to a reporter. His statement was printed in a Nov. 17 story.
It is our job to report the news and we question whether the mayor should decide whether the claim of a citizen is “legitimate.” We, as the press, believe the speech of all citizens should be taken seriously by people in power.
It is also the job of Chronicle reporters to inform the people about government actions. In that role, we reiterate that the city council needs to change the way it does business. Every decision should be made in an open and transparent manner that respects the right of people to speak about any potential policy change.
— R.R., M.G.