Does St. George’s policy of public comment in writing infringe on free speech?
It began like any other city council meeting.
A Salvation Army Major opened with a prayer. A councilman led the pledge of allegiance. There was a photo op with a charity football game trophy.
Then St. George Mayor Michele Randall read a statement about the city’s new policy to stop allowing the public to present spoken comments at city council meetings. The city now accepts written statements instead.
Seated protestors, expecting the news, packed the room holding signs that called Randall “un-American” for not letting them speak.
But many did, in fact, speak.
One man shouted out a passage from the First Amendment. Others called the decision tyranny or a breach of the council’s constitutional oath. When a councilwoman said she disagreed with the policy, the audience erupted into cheers.
After a final attempt to return the meeting to order, Randall sent the council into a nearly 20-minute recess. As she walked out of the room, the crowd chanted in favor of recalling the first female mayor in the city’s history.
Leah Murray, who directs the Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University, said this clash in southwest Utah is a microcosm of a broader nationwide trend. The public deserves opportunities to be heard, she said, but all types of public gatherings have seen an increase in hostility and vitriol in recent years.
“What had been very boring meetings that no one ever came to,” Murray said, “now had the potential to be very intense and sometimes dangerous.”
In that reality, she said, it’s reasonable for local leaders to temporarily halt in-person comments as a way to hit the reset button and hopefully find a way to regain civil discourse. She wouldn’t be surprised to see more city governments and school boards follow suit in the coming months.
But balancing the public’s right to be heard with the government’s ability to do its job is a delicate task.
Mayor Randall, who declined to speak with KUER, instead provided a written statement that said the reasoning behind the change is to prevent off-topic speeches from disrupting council meetings and distracting from actual government business.
“Public comment has turned into the same people saying the same things, mostly regarding social issues,” Randall wrote. “It was starting to get very divisive.”
She also pointed out that the new policy allows residents to submit comments via email at any time, rather than waiting to speak at a specific meeting. Those written statements, she said, will be available to the public each Friday on the city’s website.
A stream of angry letters about the policy shift has already been scanned and uploaded.
Most of the letters, including one from resident Donna Williams, warned that the new policy violates their First Amendment rights.
“By cancelling [sic] the voices you may not want to hear,” Williams wrote, “You are cancelling [sic] Freedom of Speech.”
But does the move actually infringe on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech from a legal perspective?
Murray, the Weber State professor, said not really — at least by the letter of the law.
“The fact that St. George is allowing residents to submit written public comments at any time to be included in the record means they're not being silenced,” Murray said. “But, you know, the citizens aren’t wrong. It's very easy to ignore something that's written down. It's a lot harder to ignore someone who is speaking to you.”
The new policy still satisfies open meetings rules, she said, because the public is allowed to attend council meetings. And St. George will still permit in-person comments at public hearings that concern a specific action the council is considering, such as potential changes to the budget.
And while there’s no way to make sure officials read the written comments, she said, there was never a guarantee that officials were actually listening when the public got a chance to speak to them directly, either.
But Murray said the big question is: What does this mean for the future of local discourse in places like St. George?
It’s not city officials’ responsibility to solve the national drift toward antagonism that has driven the trend of disrupted meetings across the country, she said. But in general, having a democracy with less participation and less communication ultimately hurts the relationship between the public and the local leaders representing them.
So even if policies like this one solve a short-term problem — council meetings getting derailed by unrelated objections — they might also end up deepening feelings of animosity and distrust, especially if the policies end up as permanent additions.
“This is a problem for any city or school board that chooses to go this direction because people are just going to get more angry,” Murray said. “It's not going to help in the long term.”