Residents’ right to be rude has been upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court

Louise Barron at her home in Southborough, Mass., on March 15, 2023. (Sophie Park/The New York Times)

In a decision that unnerved some elected officials, the Massachusetts Supreme Court last week reaffirmed a fundamental freedom established by the Founding Fathers: the right to be rude at public gatherings.

The ruling sparked waves of dismay across the state, where many members of the local board of elections and school committee have emerged battle-hardened from the coronavirus pandemic and its heated arguments over masks, vaccines and distance learning. Based on a lawsuit against the city of Southborough, Massachusetts, by a resident who said selected men unlawfully silenced her, the ruling against attempts to enforce good manners was overturned.

“On the face of it, it’s very disheartening,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which until last week had been pushing cities to develop guidelines for assembly courtesy. “Will it encourage the very few, very vocal individuals who aim to be disruptive? The SJC says this is the price of true freedom of speech.”

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In a state with a long, proud tradition of grassroots democracy, where people still sit shoulder to shoulder in the high school auditorium each spring to argue over budgets at the annual town meetings, fierce debate is a hallmark of civic engagement. But some observers warn that unchecked inconveniences could have unintended consequences: fewer volunteers to do the often thankless work of managing city councils, for example, and fewer opportunities for public comment that aren’t required by law.

Those concerns weren’t enough to sway the state’s Supreme Court. It was struck down as Southborough’s unconstitutional “civil code” for public comment at meetings that required “respectful and courteous” discourse “free from rude, personal or defamatory remarks”. It reversed a previous Worcester County Superior Court ruling for the city, which lies between Boston and Worcester and has a population of about 10,000.

Propriety, the new ruling concluded, was not a top priority for cousins ​​John and Samuel Adams when they drafted Article 19 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which was ratified in 1780. “The grievances they suffer,” the judges noted, “targeted them.” refrained from protecting the freedom of the colonists to profanely and rudely abuse King George III, who was then vilified as “the royal brute”.

“There was nothing respectful or polite about the public gatherings of the revolutionary period,” the court wrote in its report. “There was also a lot that was rude and personal, especially when it was directed at the king’s representatives and the king himself.”

Louise Barron, who filed the lawsuit with her husband Jack and a Southborough neighbor, said she feuded with city leaders for years over spending decisions and recording requests. But she was stunned when she was threatened with removal from a Southborough Select Board meeting in December 2018 for criticizing the board.

“I didn’t go in expecting a knock-down, drag-out, but surprise, surprise,” said Barron, 71, in an interview. She described herself as middle-class and “oppositional”.

“She’s always ladylike,” added her husband.

“I resist the system,” Barron said.

In her comments before the board that evening, she said she was trying to hold the city accountable for violating the state’s open gatherings law, a violation the attorney general’s office had confirmed. “I know it’s not easy being a volunteer in town, but breaking the law is breaking the law,” she said at the lectern in the mostly empty chamber, holding a homemade sign that read “STOP SPENDING.” on one side and “STOP BREAKING”. RIGHTS OF OPEN MEETING” on the other side.

After a board member, Daniel L. Kolenda, cut her off and accused her of “slander” against “city officials who did their best,” Barron told him, “Look, you gotta stop being a Hitler. you are a hitler I can say what I want.”

As seen in a video of the exchange, Kolenda then broke off the meeting, stood up and angrily pointed at her. Barron said he called her “disgusting” and told her she would be escorted if she didn’t go.

Kolenda, an army veteran who said his experience in Iraq inspired him to run for office, is no longer on the board. He did not answer a call from a reporter Thursday.

Barron went home shattered and has not attended a city council meeting since; She sued the city in 2020. “Now I think I should have stayed,” she said, “and made them call the police.”

The court found that her reference to Hitler was “certainly impolite and offensive” but was still protected speech. The city’s insistence on courtesy “seems to be crossing the line from viewpoint discrimination: allowing lavish praise but forbidding harsh criticism of government officials,” the ruling said.

“Although politeness can and should be encouraged in political discourse,” the judges wrote, “it cannot be required.”

A city attorney, John J. Davis, said in a statement that the court’s decision “effectively warns local officials about enforcing even modest codes of propriety at public gatherings.” He predicted that this would result in “less free speech, not more, as public comment sessions may soon be a thing of the past.”

In the years since the Barrons filed their lawsuit, public gatherings across the country have become more contentious, fueled by pandemic-related disruption and deepening political divisions, according to some observers. In Oxford, Massachusetts, near the Connecticut border, the chief executive-elect called police during a meeting in 2021, urging them to remove the vice-chair after reading a statement calling for more government transparency .

“You want me to remove a selectman?” the officer asked upon appearing, as seen in a video clip. (He did not remove them.)

Meaghan Troiano, the now former board member who was targeted, said she had campaigned for years to introduce a regular public comment period at meetings, which the chief executive rejected. She believes the Supreme Court made the right decision in the Southborough case.

“They shut me up and wouldn’t let me speak because they didn’t like what I said,” said Troiano, who resigned from her city’s board of directors in frustration six months later. “People still have the right to speak and be heard, even if you disagree with them.”

Experts say the best way to encourage civil behavior is to treat people civilly in the first place, in a way they perceive to be fair. “Those in power need to set the tone,” says Lauren Park, researcher in organizational psychology.

A crucial component is how executives deal with criticism, said Jodi RR Smith, a longtime etiquette consultant in Boston. Defensiveness is not recommended.

“The difference between a good politician or leader and a bad one is how they deal with someone who gives negative feedback,” Smith said. “Imagine the difference if, instead of getting defensive, a board member said, ‘This person doesn’t feel heard,’ and then said, ‘Tell us more.'”

In Southborough, the Selectman, who became furious after Barron called him “a Hitler”, addressed the episode at a later meeting, where he said he was “sorry that I was visibly upset with the resident”. He explained that her insult was “so inflammatory” that it elicited “elevated emotions.”

That wasn’t good enough for Barron, who said her entire trial could have been avoided with a more direct apology.

With such a gesture, she said: “That would have been put to bed.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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