A few weeks back, I was watching the Santa Barbara City Council meeting live, startled suddenly by one speaker’s public comment that the council restrict what may or may not be addressed by the general public. I listened as Anna Marie Gott spoke in reaction against another speaker’s earlier comments in support of the Trump administration. For the past month, Caroline Abate has, every Tuesday, allotted her two minutes to speak in support of President Trump’s policies. As I see it, this is strictly a First Amendment rights issue.
Anna Marie and I could discuss, I am sure, her reasons for wanting Public Comment restricted to issues directly relevant to Santa Barbara (and she would lose that debate). However, when she detoured into a vitriolic attack of President Trump, she revealed something else entirely. And that was that she wanted to silence speech that she found offensive. The Supreme Court settled that argument about 40 years ago.
Anna Marie spoke against the protections afforded all people inside our country — the right to speak freely and openly. A right that this newspaper supports unequivocally.
As I watched the proceedings, I checked on my iPhone and looked up the City Council’s policy on Public Comment. In one sentence, it states that one may speak on any issue not on the agenda. [My emphasis] That’s a direct quote, or pretty darn close. It’s also right. You don’t want to start limiting speech, then having to define what constitutes a city issue — as opposed to county issue that could affect us, and on into the state and feds.
Furthermore, you’ll for sure bring the First Amendment folks into our community, and for what? To deny a quiet and respectful woman two minutes to speak to something that she feels passionate about, so passionate, in fact, that she is willing to expose herself to ridicule (and threats, in the current political climate).
I’d like to share a memory. Back in 1988, my family lived in East Berlin for six months. My husband was given a Fulbright teaching award. Those months behind the Wall were life-altering for each of us, including our boy. There are memories of that world that will remain etched in my mind and heart for the remainder of my life. Among them, the times we would find ourselves walking past Berlin’s City Hall (Rathaus in German) and also when we’d saunter past the Parliament building in Alexanderplatz. Both government buildings were guarded by armed soldiers. Only those with business inside were permitted to enter.
All the newspapers and television stations were owned by the government, so that the citizenry were told what their leaders wanted them to know. The wall between government and its people was as solid as the concrete and barbed wire and land mines that separated the East from the West. That is no hyperbole.
We take so much for granted, and from time to time, it’s important to step back to reflect on our form of governance again. When our mayor and councilmembers return to the dais this coming Tuesday, think about the former East Germany. If you’re present or watching on the television, look around the council chambers. The door is unlocked; people may enter even after Mayor Murillo calls the meeting to order. The two entry doors downstairs, likewise, are unlocked, all day and every workday. Anyone can freely enter or exit City Hallm, or any of the thousands of government offices around our country.
Throughout council meetings, there’s always at least one police officer present, but is anyone in the room frightened of him? Cameras record the meeting so that folks like me can watch live from our homes. It’s even telecast in Spanish! I also expect that Nick Welsh or another reporter or two will be there to cover an agenda item of particular interest. Can you imagine City Council attempting to control what our journalists report?
But for me, the one part of the proceedings that really sets America apart from all other countries, past and present, is the Public Comment period. I love it! I know, I recognize that some of those speakers ramble on, especially the regulars. Council and staff must be thinking, will it ever end?
But thank God that they can speak. It’s a precious right. Public Comment is the great equalizer. A homeless and mentally ill woman can speak her mind. So can a prominent businessman. As can a respected retired judge. I cherish those minutes because they remind me of what we own as a people: the First Amendment and the other nine that follow her.