September 11, 2016 – The News-Press
by Frank Bumb
A Cape Coral City Council member wants speakers to rein in their speech or face a cut microphone and a gavel from the mayor.
Marilyn Stout brought language adapted from the Lee County School District to the last council meeting because it is needed to help prevent speakers from saying “harmful things to people and saying things that should not be said.”
“If you’re unhappy with a council member or a staff person then I would suggest stay home and yell at your TV,” Stout said. “That’s what my husband does with the presidential election.”
Stout’s language was adapted from what Lee County School reads out at its meetings.
“Council provides an opportunity at this point in the meeting to address the Council regarding any matter on this meeting’s agenda or any other matter relevant to the operation of the City. The Mayor will give you an opportunity in a moment to express that desire. The Council does not respond during public comment time to remarks made by speakers. At the conclusion of the public comment time, the Mayor or Council may address concerns raised by speakers or may assign responsibility to the City Manager to do so. Speakers are expected to act in a respectful manner. Those who fail to do so, will be removed from the meeting if, after being warned, their misconduct continues. Disruptive attacks on individuals are prohibited.”
Stout said the language was necessary to deal with attacks on city staff and council members. Council members Jim Burch, John Carioscia, Rick Williams and Mayor Marni Retzer expressed some degree of agreement with Stout’s proposal.
…Council members Richard Leon and Jessica Cosden expressed reservations about utilizing language that could be interpreted to stifle free speech rights.
Retzer said her concern was that residents could be “taking away” from the city’s performance outside council chambers by their conduct during meetings.
“But it’s important that we start owning that spot and owning the fact that we are the 10th largest city in Florida…,” Retzer said. “I get told from a commissioner ‘we heard about Cape Coral’ which is the problem, I think (Councilwoman Stout) is trying to address. Not taking away anyone’s rights, but the fact we need to step forward and be civil.”
Cosden responded that the city trying to control its image in public comment could backfire .
“Imagine what we sound like right now. … Can you imagine what it sounds like to say, we’re not going to allow certain speech from the podium because if you’re mean we’re going to shut off your mic,” Cosden said. “That’s what it sounds like we’re saying and to me that’s not what I signed up for. I’m not saying I enjoy the negativity, but I knew what I was getting into. … I’m not saying that we deserve to take a beating but… We’re getting into territory that makes me feel a little bit icky when it comes to people’s free speech.”
But image could be the least of the city’s problems on such language, according to Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.
“I’d bet that if I want to praise a council member or staff member to the heavens, they’re not going to cut my mic, but as soon as I’m criticizing? Give me a break,” Petersen said. “The fact is that our ability to let our public officials know what they’re doing right and wrong is critical to any democracy. How do they know that Jane Doe over in accounting is doing a bad job if we’re not allowed to tell them?”
Petersen said council would be well within its rights to adopt what’s known as time, place and manner restrictions.
“You can’t make threats, no biting, no shouting, no shoving, that sort of thing,” Petersen. “But restrictions can’t be content based. You can’t allow all the named praise you like but cutoff named criticism. I don’t know how that’ll pass constitutional muster.”
Petersen’s recommendation for council could come across as harsh, she admitted.
“You just have to toughen up,” she said. “I know that sounds not very sympathetic. But when you work for government as an employee even more so as an elected. You’ve got to take your lumps. And people are going to be angry and say things. We have to allow that kind of conversation to take place because otherwise we’re half informed.” [READ MORE]