Update on our citizens petition and a civics lesson for Peter Ashton

Thanks to all who contacted me about signing our Citizens Petition for a Town Meeting warrant article to protect our free speech rights under the First Amendment. Scott and I were able to quickly collect our 20 signatures at Roche Bros. and we turned them in and had them certified before 1 pm. We are now on the April Town Meeting warrant, scheduled as the first article on the second night.

To read the warrant article and summary, written by Charlie Kadlec, Scott Smyers, and me, click here: http://www.actonforum.com/story/citizens-petition-link. For the original article describing the Special Town Meeting and Ashton's ruling, including links to the emails he had with Town Counsel and the preamble he read to prevent public criticism of our elected officials, click here: http://www.actonforum.com/story/actons-special-town-meeting-violated-free-speech-rights-voters

I read our warrant article at the Acton Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting last night, and answered a couple of questions. I also made two remarks. The first is that because of the advice Mr. Ashton received from Town Counsel which empowered him to deny many people their First Amendment rights at the December 4 Special Town Meeting, I requested the BOS hire another law firm for the town's legal work. And second, I publicly called on Mr. Ashton to be prepared to recuse himself from moderating this warrant article when it comes up at Annual Town Meeting.

Civics lesson for Moderator Ashton

Acton Town Moderator Peter Ashton needs a civics lesson. Let me fulfill that need. I will let him forward this to our Town Counsel.

The Founding Fathers not only wanted to break away from English tyranny, they also wanted to create a new society that was not going to make the same mistakes. These great visionaries realized that governments tended to grab more and more power, infringing on people's rights. These rights were God-given or "natural" rights, and we are born with them. It isn't (or shouldn't be) within the government's power to abridge them.

Of all the rights, in my opinion, the right to Free Speech is the most important. That is because a single person's thoughts or ideas can be what makes things change. An individual who expresses his opinion in public, without government censorship, is the core of this freedom. There are other rights which of course are also important, like freedom of the press. The press can take that single voice and amplify it many more times. But without the core freedom of speech by individuals, the government could silence the dissenter before he gets to publish, or punish those who speak out after the fact. Newspaper publishers would quickly be forced to toe the line without the right to individual free speech. So without personal free speech, you simply can't have a free press.

Mr. Ashton's unfortunate ruling that Town Meeting speakers could not criticize their elected School Committee representatives by name or title, because he would not allow "personal attacks," was done under the guise of maintaining civility. Besides getting approval from Town Counsel Nina Pickering-Cook for this pathetic ruling, he also relied on the Town Moderator's unofficial handbook, called Town Meeting Time. This book, first published over 100 years ago, cautions against speakers attacking one another. It suggests you say, "The previous speaker," instead of "Mr. Jones." And in maintaining civility and decorum, it is concerned with form over content.

Criticizing our elected officials, however, is about content. So long as the speech doesn't use "fighting words" and such, the content of the speech should not be constrained. I can see a moderator asking a speaker to refrain from calling a town leader "a bastard" but not for calling for that leader's resignation. The first is an unpleasant "ad hominem" attack but the second is speech that is, and must be, protected.

Here is something for Mr. Ashton to think about: preventing me from publicly holding our elected officials accountable for the performance of their duties deprives all of Town Meeting with potentially vital information. Silencing criticism gives voters less information about the people entrusted to act (and spend money) on their behalf.

Mr. Ashton and Town Counsel Pickering-Cook seem to agree that there are other, perhaps better venues, for this public speech, like social media. This is nonsense. Obviously, not everyone has the same access to social media or uses it the same way. But even if they did, the place to hold public officials accountable is when they come before the public, asking for more money or authority. Voters who lack confidence in the performance of these individuals might not want to trust them with further authority. Perhaps they can't wait for the next election to have their concerns addressed. So Town Meeting is a perfect venue when such accountability can be publicly questioned and discussed.

And unlike social media, criticism at Town Meeting is not anonymous. People have to be willing to stand up and be identified. So one speaker willing to do so might be representing 10 or 100 who feel the same way but might not be willing to speak publicly. And there is further evidence that this is true: out of 1,200 people, only one person ended up speaking against the warrant article, and Mr. Ashton interrupted me numerous times and "ordered" me to "move on." For those who are unaware of the Moderator's legal power at Town Meeting, had I persisted past Mr. Ashton's patience, I would have been subject to restraint and detention by the police.

What sane person would have followed me up to the microphone and tried to criticize the leaders who stood before them asking for their votes? Well, nobody did. If Mr. Ashton's goal was to discourage debate and just get the warrant article approved by rubber-stamp, mission accomplished.

Information about our elected leaders is information that Town Meeting voters are entitled to hear. The ones whose rights were violated were not just those like me who wanted to speak out against our School Committee leaders (specifically Amy Krishnamurthy and Mary Brolin), but all the voters who were wrongfully denied the opportunity to hear and evaluate for themselves the concerns many have about these leaders.

If you were one of the 1,200 people who waited over 90 minutes to discuss the first warrant article, and you came to listen about the school building plans, you had the right to know that many members of our two communities have no confidence in the present School Committee leader, Ms. Krishnamuthy, and want her to resign. That just might be a factor in your decision as to whether you want to entrust the schools with a potentially $200 million twin-school building project. Have these leaders made good decisions in the past? Have they been frugal with taxpayers funds? Do they have the right administrative team to undertake this project? (If you want to know, the answers are no, no, and probably no. The fact that these leaders engineered the removal of our previous Superintendent, in the middle of attempting to launch this school building project, is very troubling. What were they thinking?)

Preventing public criticism of elected officials at the appropriate time and public place is a First Amendment right for the speaker, but also a right to information for Town Meeting voters. Therefore, the rights of 1,200 people were violated that night in December by Moderator Ashton.

I have a confession. I am soooo looking forward to publicly debating Moderator Ashton on this, and can't wait to hear his arguments against free speech. I am also looking forward to seeing if his allies on the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee vote to protect and uphold the U.S. Constitution or if in Acton, it is more important to vote with your friends and political allies than follow the law. These votes will all be public, by roll call. I will report back on these developments as we get closer to Town Meeting.

Subscribe to the Acton Forum and get our newsletters emailed to you -- FREE! Click Here!