Our opinion: Speech and responsibility

Monday December 31, 2012

The rights given Americans by the Constitution don’t come without responsibilities. While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech it does not, as the Supreme Court famously ruled, give someone the right "shout fire in a crowded movie theater" when there is no fire. While the press cherishes its rights under the First Amendment it acknowledges that if it prints libelous statements about someone it is open to being sued.

Along these lines, there is no First Amendment right to be disruptive at City Council meetings, and boards have a right to establish reasonable rules of conduct. The North Adams City Council may vote next month on a rule banning public displays of messages, such as signs or on T-shirts, from City Council meetings. Some councilors and city residents argue that the rule, which is being reviewed by city solicitor John DeRosa, is in violation of the First Amendment.

The rule is a response to a furor in June when the council banned Robert Cardimino from meetings due to a "pattern of disruptive behavior," a ban lifted after intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union. The council then decided to enact a rule specifically banning signs.

The council allows citizens to speak at an open forum in meetings, and citizens in turn have a responsibility to speak respectfully. Counter to Mr. Cardimino’s claim that the mayor is merely a "guest" at council meetings, he is in fact the city’s chief executive and must be able to interact with councilors to advance city business that is not within the purview of just any voter who shows up to vent. Would it be preferable for the mayor and councilors to conduct their business in private?

The ACLU does good work but this tempest is a waste of its time and it need not interfere with the council’s attempts to establish a sound rule that injures no one’s legitimate rights. Pittsfield’s charter review commission should pay close attention to what does and doesn’t happen in North Adams in the weeks ahead.


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