When you think of town meetings in most American communities, those interstitial scenes from Parks & Recreation might come to mind — lots of random mundane rantings and ramblings from various constituents that are at once tedious and hilarious in their own absurdist way.
But public meetings aren't always so dull, or delightful. Things can get hostile. Sometimes its FOX News-fueled monologues about delusional CRT fantasies; sometimes its groups of disenfranchised citizens who are legitimately fed up with special interests and continued disenfranchisement, whose only hopes to protect their homes might be a public appeal to their elitist elected officials.
And lest those elected officials feel uncomfortable when faced with the consequences of their decisions! At least, that's the sort of vibe that the 10,000-person town of Southborough, Massachusetts was going for when it passed a "civility code" that outlawed certain unbecoming behaviors at town meetings, legally requiring that citizens act "respectful and courteous" towards their representatives, and that "rude, personal or slanderous remarks" are prohibited and will result in removal from the meeting.
That rule has been on the Southborough books for a while now. But its come up now in light of a lawsuit filed after a 2018 town meeting in which a resident told a member of the town board to, "STOP BEING A HITLER!"
The question of whether you can call an elected official "Hitler" eventually rose to the Massachusetts State Supreme Court — which ruled this month that yes, you can totally be a dick at town meetings.
From The Boston Globe:
At the meeting, a town official cited a local "civility code" to abruptly shut down a public comment period after a resident made critical comments about a proposed property tax hike and repeated violations of the open meeting law, the SJC said.
That was improper under a clause of the state constitution, known as Article 19, that John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams crafted together, the court ruled. The goal then, and now, is to assure the public has a voice in the operations of all levels of government, especially the municipal level, the court ruled.
Article 19 was inspired by the deep antipathy towards King George III that colonists expressed in harsh and often insulting language, the SJC noted.
Article 19 "reflects the lessons and the spirit of the American Revolution," Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote for the court. "It was designed to protect such opposition [to governmental authority], even if it was rude, personal, and disrespectful to public figures, as the colonists eventually were to the king and his representatives in Massachusetts."
Although a comparison to Hitler is certainly rude and insulting, it is still speech protected.
There ya have! Massholes gonna masshole. Although apparently that's still up-in-the-air in Cambridge.
SJC rules that free speech at public hearings includes right to use 'rude, personal, and disrespectful' words [John R. Ellement / The Boston Globe]
Residents' Right to Be Rude Upheld by Massachusetts Supreme Court [Jenna Russell / The New York Times]