Update on Free Speech Warrant Article 27


Acton Forum editors Allen Nitschelm and Charlie Kadlec met with Town Counsel Nina Pickering-Cook and Town Manager Steve Ledoux to discuss the Town of Acton's position regarding free speech and public criticism of officials. Town Moderator Peter Ashton has published a speaking rule (page 84 of the Warrant for the April 2, 2018 ATM) that prevents the use of anyone’s name during Town Meeting. Emails between Ashton and Town Counsel last year showed Ashton's purpose in creating and enforcing this rule was to prevent public criticism of elected School Committee members.

Town Counsel informed Nitschelm and Kadlec that it is unconstitutional to prevent criticism of public officials. But Pickering-Cook allowed Ashton to implement a rule preventing any use of names as within the scope of his power as Moderator. She said that such a rule would be considered “viewpoint neutral” and so long as it is not selectively enforced, the Moderator could impose such a rule. Pickering-Cook explained that unlike a “town square” where such speech cannot be regulated by the government, Town Meeting is considered a “legislative body” and the Moderator thus has far greater powers to regulate speech.

Since then, Ashton has affirmed his intent to prevent the use of any names at Town Meeting. To see his recent email, click here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/Ashton_03272018.pdf.

While it is fantastic that the Town and Moderator Ashton recognize the Constitutional right to criticize elected officials, we are still concerned that Moderator Ashton’s rule will make it much harder to criticize public officials, and thus remains unconstitutional. In addition, we find the rule overly broad and preventing praise or support of our leaders is also a poor policy outcome. For good or bad, we need to know what our leaders are doing, and statements from members of Town Meeting who are discussing these leaders’ proposals are the best way to learn this. We need to be able to refer to people by the universally understood method: their names.

NO-NAMES RULE MEANT TO PREVENT CRITICISM OF ELECTED OFFICIALS

We make a distinction, which Peter Ashton rejects, between comments about citizens who are members of Town Meeting and elected/appointed officials. The latter choose to be “public figures” and are subject to public criticism; residents who attend Town Meeting deserve a degree of privacy, especially when they speak publicly. Attacking people by name who speak at the microphone could result in fewer people willing to speak. So preserving decorum in these instances makes sense.

But this rule is totally devoid of logic when applied to the elected and appointed officials who are identified by name in the Warrant (starting with Peter Ashton, Moderator), introduced by name at the start of Town Meeting or when an Article sponsored by a Board or Committee is introduced; somebody’s name is part of every motion (“ Mr./Ms. Smith moves …”) as read by the Moderator and recorded in the Town Meeting Abstract. The Moderator constantly uses the names of all the people making presentations and answering questions, but if a mere citizen dares to do the same, he or she will be assumed to be making a personal attack.

We believe this new policy of not using anyone’s names will have the effect of making it much harder to criticize specific elected or appointed individuals, and thus is unconstitutional. It is overly broad and imprecise and prevents efficient communication. How do you criticize elected or appointed officials who have no title, or whose title is unknown to the general public? We have sent an email to Town Counsel explaining our reasoning and concerns, and are awaiting a reply. To read our email to Town Counsel, click here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/Email_to_Town_Counsel_03282018.pdf

Peter Ashton has stated that one of his goals is to increase attendance at Town Meetings, and to make Town Meeting “a more pleasant experience.” Imposing silly diktats is not the way to accomplish it.

Now that it has been affirmed that elected officials can be criticized, we expect Moderator Ashton to eventually rescind his rule preventing the use of anyone’s name. Until then, we ask for your support in helping Moderator Ashton reach this conclusion by voting “YES” for Warrant Article 27, which will be heard just before the budgets on the first night of Town Meeting, Monday, April 2, 2018.

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Comments

Free Speech

Because Mr. NoName Moderator continues to champion town meeting procedures like this that fail to pass the "common sense test" I found it necessary to withhold my vote for his reelection. The past few years in Acton have been mind boggling. The School Committee has wasted more than half a million taxpayer dollars in two cases of mysterious departures of employees while continuing to pay them. Then they proceeded to try to hide behind "Executive Sessions" and "Non-Disclosure Agreements" despite State rulings to the contrary. Innocent business people harassed by the BOS over supposed liquor violations. The constant tax to the max approach which now causes my property taxes to eat up 3/4 of my Social Security annual income. The umpteenth Kelly's Corner redevelopment study which will yield no fruit like all its predecessors. The financially botched regionalization of the Acton and Boxborough school systems. My hat is off to the Acton Forum for tackling many difficult and perplexing issues on behalf of the every-day Acton citizenry who continue to call Acton home even after their kids graduate from high school at AB.

SLOW DEATH OF DEMOCRACY

I thank "squirrel_hill" for the excellent note on the erroneous actions of the BOS and town moderator vis-a-vis freedom of speech. To me, most all gov't officials - elected or appointed - are working to minimize our rights as noted in the Constitution. Of our "freedoms" none, to to me, is more important than freedom of speech.

At the "grass roots" level they are fighting to control our free speech and rights to know, seemingly, at every turn. Who are these people to say it is none of my business when they give away HUNDREDS of thousands of our tax dollars because they are not capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of there elected positions? And, who is this town moderator who takes it upon himself to deny us the freedom of confronting our elected officials by name?

Our town counsel says the town moderator is within his right, by her interpretation of the commonwealth's laws. Isn't she the same person who told the school board their closed meetings were legal only to be proven wrong after, under her guidance, the town spent over a HUNDRED thousand dollars in legal fees to have her opinion proven false? (Can she be sued for this very bad advice?)

If elected official makes a mistake in one area and does excellent work in another, where is the problem in anyone at town meeting telling the person by name about the great job and the poor one?

A goodly number of questions could be asked if truth was the always the response. For example, who ever decided the slate roof on town hall had to be replaced? Our family's how in Wales has the same slate roof as wa put on it more than four CENTURIES ago -- it has been repaired but NEVER REPLACED! Why are we planning on demolishing existing school buildings only to erect new school buildings? Again, "back home" there are school buildings in daily use and in good condition that are over 100 years old. The grammar school I attended in Boston was 100 years old when I attended it (1945 - 1953).

Respectfully