The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 1, 2013

Observe, protect right of free speech


Daily Item

---- — If you would like to explore the complications of governing freedom of speech at public meetings, you can find information on the Internet at firstamendmentcenter.org/speaking-at-public-meetings. There are several variations from which to choose.

The situation that seems to apply to Northumberland County commissioners is that they created a limited public forum when they invited citizens to speak at their commissioners' meetings in a public comment segment.

When one of the speakers began to rattle on -- perhaps somewhat repetitiously and perhaps somewhat accusatorially -- they gaveled him off, spawning a situation that percolated toward a federal lawsuit because county judges are regarded as too close or too involved with commissioners in Northumberland County to be impartial.

That led to some free speaking by two commissioners, who impugned the motives of the lone local judge, Charles Saylor, who said he would hear the case.

Judge Saylor has a history of opposition to a county decision regarding Youth and Family Services and a non-profit government watch group, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children or CASA, that serves as the child's advocate in family court matters, which are rarely public.

From that experience, reputations emerged somewhat bruised. A lingering feeling of distrust persists, apparently, because when Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy learned Judge Saylor had agreed to hear the case after two other local judges recused themselves, the commissioners elevated the matter to federal courts to escape what they believed would be a prejudicial local experience.

This is probably a federal matter regardless of lingering enmity on the local political scene. The matter pivots on how restrictive public officials can be when they provide citizens with a public comment period for the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Government officials are allowed to limit comments to relevant subject matter. They can impose reasonable time limits. They can ask speakers not to be overly repetitive with points of view that have already been expressed. They can control disruptive language.

Once they have created a public forum, public officials are obliged to observe and protect the right to freedom of speech and not censor or silence those with whom they simply disagree.

The case in Northumberland includes elements on both sides of the equation. Were it up to us, we would have let the speaker use his full 15 minutes of fame. Let's see what a federal judge says.