The West Hollywood City Council last week passed a resolution establishing some basic rules of decorum for those speaking at and attending council meetings. Not surprisingly, the new rules prompted an online flurry of “WTF” exclamations and cries of censorship.
The new rules bar ad hominem attacks, profanity and noise or actions that are likely to disrupt the council meeting. They require speakers to stay on topic. And they require attendees to wear shoes and a shirt (no mention of pants, although the appearance at the last council meeting of a speaker in a Speedo may prompt the addition of that requirement). All of that is pretty much the same standard of conduct that you’d expect of a customer at a 7-Eleven convenience store.
The new rules were enacted “to ensure that people actually get to say what they want at council meetings and commission meetings,” explained Mayor Abbe Land. “We want to make sure that people feel comfortable when they express their opinion and will not be threatened and be talked at by other folks. It is really important that we treat each other with respect and that you can say anything that you want.”
Land’s explanation sounds perfectly reasonable. The rules of decorum aren’t a violation of the First Amendment, as some allege, because they don’t ban anyone from expressing opinions about the subject at hand. They just regulate how those opinions are expressed. Anyone with even basic awareness of the Constitution should know that the Supreme Court famously ruled that one can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre and be protected by the First Amendment. Some forms of expression aren’t protected in some situations, especially when the manner blocks other people from expressing their opinions.
So why the declarations of censorship? Why the outburst of online profanity? And why can’t folks discuss and debate civic issues without getting downright nasty and mean?
Maybe it’s because being civil and staying on the point requires thought and manners. Manners are what most of us were taught as children and seem to lose touch with as we age. If one listens to political discussion shows on television and reads web comments, it’s clear that the ability to think and reason has not widely taught, and it doesn’t come naturally.
As someone who personally approves all the comments posted on WEHOville.com, I wish the council rules came in the form of a digital app that was activated instantly every time a commenter on our site tried to use a profane word, insult the intelligence of a fellow commenter or allude to some sort of irrelevant dirty activity on the part of a person with whom he or she disagreed.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google is working on such a thing. But in the meantime folks, stop and think about what you want to say. Don’t censor yourself, by which I mean you shouldn’t refrain from expressing your opinion. But, whether it’s at a council meeting or on WEHOville.com, do take time to frame your comments and opinions in a polite and logical way, relevant to the subject under discussion and without attacks on your fellow commenters. In other words, just be nice.