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Editorial: Rowdy Council meetings testing limits of free speech

“A messy participatory process is representative democracy at its best.”

– Mark McKinnon, chief media strategist for President George W. Bush

By the above measure, an average Albuquerque City Council meeting is the epitome of democracy. A handful of critics routinely tries to monopolize the proceedings, taking some of the coveted 30 open comment spots at the beginning of the agenda, heckling other speakers, then revisiting the microphone on up to three specific items of business each, only to quickly digress into their own special-interest issues.

It’s certainly messy, but that’s part and parcel with First Amendment freedoms, even under revised Council meeting rules that since 2014 have tried to better keep business on track for the community at large while recognizing the right of people to address their government.

So it is understandable that after issuing several warnings about a display larger than the allowed 8½ x 11 sheet (an American flag held upside down), Council President Dan Lewis adjourned Monday night’s meeting for the regular break, then followed the advice of security personnel and attorneys and excluded regular protester Silvio Dell’Angela from the second half.

But will that second-half ban come with a price?

The city already has paid a $14,000 settlement regarding the free-speech rights of Dell’Angela and four others after a police oversight board refused to let them speak on certain topics at a 2012 meeting.

And over at Albuquerque Public Schools, blogger Charles “Ched” MacQuigg got $480,000 in attorney’s fees and $95,000 in damages, and retired police officer Mark Bralley received almost $60,000, after they were tossed out of a meeting and told not to come back. (MacQuigg, a retired shop teacher, was accused of being disruptive and threatening, allegedly taking hundreds of photos of APS employees in attendance, speaking out of turn and looming behind the then-superintendent while videotaping. Bralley was accused of improperly recording board members going into closed session.) Bralley observes that his court win “is sort of unfortunate because that is a fair amount of money that should have gone directly to the education process.” (He could always donate his winnings to further education.)

It is frustrating to have to accommodate those who simply want to hear their own voices or goad officials into a confrontation – especially when, as on Monday night, time runs out for members of the public who rarely, if ever, try to engage their local government. Lewis says a group of Boy Scouts left the chambers without getting to participate because of the drama and delay. And it’s unfortunate the free speech rights of those scouts were collateral damage.

Yet it is clear the city needs to carefully consider the issue and make sure its policies strike an acceptable balance between keeping the business at hand flowing and allowing those who come to protest to exercise their rights – all without having to write more checks. The protesters make the democratic process messy, but that’s our system.

Banning people from meetings requires careful decision making.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.