Douglas County commissioners discuss First Amendment rights in regards to public comment

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Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday had their own comments following a public comment about public comment.

Michael Eravi, of Lawrence, raised concerns during the general public comment portion of the meeting about the commission’s admonition at the beginning of meetings regarding public comments.

Eravi noted this line, which Commission Chair Shannon Reid read at the start of the meeting: “The county reserves the right to mute or remove any speaker who is vulgar, rude or inappropriate.”

“You can threaten to stop public comment altogether, but I’m pretty sure the citizens of this county would see that as a bad move on the part of the commission,” Eravi said. “And I would challenge that that’s not the right move to make. I would just ask that this commission follows the U.S. Constitution and allows free and public airing of grievances, no matter how those grievances come.”

After the commissioners approved their main agenda item, a resolution establishing standards for solar energy conversion systems, Commission Vice Chair Shannon Portillo said she would like to have a brief discussion about the First Amendment, since it has come up a few times.

“The First Amendment is an incredibly important part of our government, but it is not an absolute where people can say whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want,” Portillo said. “The public forum doctrine is what regulates speech within local community meetings. It’s really important because it actually equalizes speech.”

She said the commission wants to hear from everyone engaged around topics on the meeting agenda.

“Being disparaging towards our public servants who are here trying to do the people’s work is not something we have to listen to on a weekly basis,” she said. “I know that for me, it’s incredibly important that we keep public comment open. … But part of what we do is limit the way that we engage with speech so that we can hear it from everyone and be really engaging around that.”

For context — though commissioners did not bring it up themselves during Wednesday’s meeting — the three have sat through hours of public comment, particularly regarding pandemic mitigation strategies such as mask mandates. During those meetings, they have regularly been called nazis, child abusers and other disparaging terms as well as had their personal lives attacked.

Reid said she agreed the First Amendment was an important topic to discuss, and she thought the commission had been vocal about wanting to maintain public comment, not just on agenda items but on other questions and concerns the public has about the work of the county.

“So I do believe it’s very important for us to preserve that, and also appreciate that we are able to limit and define the manner in which we receive that public comment and provide that limited public forum for our community members,” she said. “I think that it’s something that I expect us to continue preserving, and we will continue to have a reasonable and appropriate boundaries about what that limited public forum can look like in our meetings.”

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he had done some of his own research on the time, place and manner of public comment.

He said one analogy was helpful for him: Although the county would not prohibit someone from protesting, they might prohibit someone from protesting at 4 a.m. in a residential neighborhood with a bullhorn.

“My goal really is to make sure that we have a tolerant and safe space for everybody who wants to provide public comment,” he said. “And yes, certainly some of the ideas represented can be unsettling, maybe, for some — but I think what’s important is that everyone feels like they can provide that public comment and will be heard and will not feel threatened.”

The commission doesn’t have to take public comment at all, but Reid said commissioners value it and they want to preserve that right.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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