The 1st Amendment isn’t a license to be an asshole

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland City Council discussed an ordinance on Mar. 8 that focuses on how the city should handle the disruption of city meetings, but commissioners did not vote on the matter that day. “Over the course of the last few years, disruptions at city council meetings have become the undesirable norm which allowed a few individuals to halt council meetings,” the ordinance explains. It says some disruptions by protesters interfered with the council’s ability to carry out city business, and that city boards and commission meetings have also encountered the same disruptive behaviors. The ordinance says the city must establish rules of conduct, clearly state the expectations for acceptable behavior and tell people the consequences for unacceptable behavior. “Disruptive, threatening and dangerous behaviors at city council will no longer be tolerated” it reads. The ordinance says a person in charge will ask people who misbehave at city properties to leave or “face property exclusion or criminal trespass.”

As much as I love living in Portland, I don’t write a lot about my adopted hometown. Politics here just isn’t terribly exciting or compelling. Over the past few years, though, a disturbing trend has come to light- one which needs to be stopped local government is ground to a halt.

Portland has always been home to committed, passionate activists willing to go to the mat for their pet cause. That’s hardly breaking news. What’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore is the willingness of some activists to disrupt a process when they don’t get their way. In this case, it’s the Portland City Council, which by law must conduct its business in a public forum…except that said public is becoming increasingly restive and cantankerous.

Dissent is part and parcel of American democracy, and the right to dissent should be protected. That doesn’t mean opposition and protest should be allowed to run rampant and become disruptive. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening to City Council meetings here. As much as the right to protest and speak one’s mind is cherished here, a vocal and disruptive minority are being allowed to bring city government to a halt.

City Council meetings are out of control, with attendees acting more like out-of-control kindergartners on a sugar high. It’s childish…and it needs to stop. Government shouldn’t be held hostage by those too immature to play by the rules. Speak your mind. Allow others to do the same. Respect the rights of others. Allow the democratic process to play out.

The above video is typical of what’s happening these days. In an effort to ensure they can do their jobs, City Council is discussing an ordinance which would set minimum standards of conduct at their meetings. That seems a reasonable place to start, given the free-for-all atmosphere which permeates City Council meetings these days.

Even that modest goal appears to be too much for the local ACLU chapter, which opposes any curb on the right to speak at City Council meetings. Except that the new ordinance isn’t an attempt to stifle speech; it’s an effort to ensure a minimum level of decorum in order that council members may do their job. A City Council meeting shouldn’t resemble an episode of “Romper Room”…and yet that’s exactly what’s happening these days.

The inmates are running the asylum…and it needs to stop. I’d challenge the ACLU to propose a solution which would in their mind pass constitutional muster…because government can’t work effectively during the functional equivalent of a food fight.

The right to free speech and expression is an awesome and wonderful thing…but that right comes with the corresponding responsibility to respect the process and those involved in it. There’s no right to be a disruptive asshole. The ordinance proposed by the Portland City Council seems a reasonable response to a very serious problem- unless the ACLU believes the current state of affairs is merely an example of citizens exercising their free speech rights.

1 thought on “The 1st Amendment isn’t a license to be an asshole

  1. Racer X

    “I’d challenge the ACLU to propose a solution which would in their mind pass constitutional muster” Good one. As the GOP is finding out, it is much easier to criticize than it is to lead.


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