Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Praise, criticism part of elected official's job

Elected officials and the public servants they supervise can get awfully thin skinned. It’s understandable. After all, who wants to listen to speakers rip them from the podium during public meetings, with comments that can range from right on to ridiculous to patently untrue.

Yet, in our system, that’s part and parcel of being a governing body board member, a school superintendent, a police chief or any other person hired to do the public’s business.

So the village of Ruidoso was begging for a legal challenge when it decided that speakers during the public comment portion of a council meeting were prohibited from making negative comments about village personnel or members of the governing body.

It got one, with U.S. District Judge James O. Browning ruling last week that Council’s rule violated the First Amendment.

In an 89-page opinion, Browning concluded the council meetings are limited public forums, so any restriction on speech has to be reasonable. Limits can be placed on time and topic, but not on the speaker’s opinion.

“You can block topics, but not viewpoints, and negative is a viewpoint,” said Greg Williams, president-elect of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

William Griffin, a lawyer, sued after the council refused to let him speak at a meeting.

In a similar case, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo ruled in March against a decision by the Albuquerque Public Schools board to ban Charles “Ched” MacQuigg, who frequently spoke out about a particular program. APS board members said they expelled MacQuigg because he would shout during meetings, hover over administrators, and once wore an elephant mask that made employees and members of the public feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

However, Judge Armijo said the real reason for excluding him was “the board’s frustration with plaintiff’s ad nauseum belaboring ... about Character Counts” and said its justifications “are pretexts masking viewpoint discrimination.”

Browning wrote that nothing in New Mexico law requires a public body to allow the public to speak, although the law requires that meetings be open. But good open government should involve the public and encourage the exercise of free speech rights as long as order can be kept and public business can get done.

Elected officials should understand that both praise and criticism come with the job and run their meetings accordingly. The public is well served by Browning’s decision that reins in this offensive practice.

— Albuquerque Journal

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