Residents protest Town Council’s ‘gag rule’

Residents protest Town Council’s ‘gag rule’

SMITHFIELD – The Smithfield Town Council again found itself on defense last Tuesday when residents turned out to question the five-minute limit on public comment.

Residents have been voicing concerns about the limit to resident comments ever since the policy was instituted on Aug. 8, following a unilateral decision by Town Council President Paul Santucci.

As a result of the limit, if a resident would like to speak at length about a municipal issue, he or she must reach out to a council member and ask the councilor to “sponsor” his or her topic on an upcoming Town Council meeting agenda. Accompanying documents to be distributed to the council must be sent to the councilor sponsoring the agenda item.

The council president said the decision was made in an effort to use time more efficiently. The goal was not to discourage comment, he insisted, but to “keep an orderly meeting, that’s all.”

Several residents have said the new policy is an infringement on First Amendment rights, including local businessman Jackson Despres, who was on the Oct. 3 agenda for a listed item “Discussion of Rhode Island Ethics Commission decision concerning Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh.”

He ran into an unexpected barrier last Tuesday. Since Despres had only submitted the entire investigatory report to the council before the meeting, he would only be allowed to read from the investigatory report, and would not be allowed to add any additional comment or explanation.

“I don’t believe that I’m required to tell you word for word what I intend to say,” Despres said.

“Yes you are,” Santucci said. “It’s a privilege, not a right, to exercise your speech in this council chamber,” Santucci said.

Despres once again asked the council president to clarify.

“You’re going to tell me that every single person that comes to this podium ... has to provide you, verbatim, exactly what they’re going to say, on every topic that comes before this council?” he asked.

“In terms of the back-up, yes sir,” Santucci said.

Despres said he intends to file a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, citing an infringement of his First Amendment rights.

Also on last Tuesday’s agenda was resident Al Costantino, who was scheduled for a “Discussion of Land Trust properties.”

Alberto LaGreca moved to table the discussion “in light of the scheduled Land Trust work session.” The motion was seconded by Councilor Michael Lawton and Cavanagh abstained from the vote.

Costantino, who took out a full page advertisement opposing the five-minute limit in the Aug. 31 edition of The Valley Breeze & Observer, said he would bring the file to the District of Rhode Island Department of Justice instead.

Ryan McNelis, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Smithfield Town Council, said the five-minute limit on public comment, “is little more than a resurrection of the United States Congress’s infamous gag rule.”

McNelis suggested decorum in the council chambers could be governed by rules of order, rather than time limits.

“Let the watchdogs speak, let the defenders speak, then let the voters decide,” McNelis said.

Former Town Council member Patricia Williams cautioned the council against limiting public comment.

“I am ashamed of each and every one of you if you are in support of silencing the community. It is an outrageous memorandum,” Williams said.

She recalled her own time on the council listening to a wide swath of resident grievances.

“That’s your job, do your job. If you don’t like it, resign.”

Resident Joe O’Connor continued his remarks on public comment, which he has spread over three meetings due to the time restriction and an early adjournment of the Sept. 19 meeting. O’Connor characterized Santucci’s alteration of the Town Council’s rules of procedure as an “abominable decision.”

“I realize these comments are going to sound quite condescending or melodramatic to some, but I can assure you I take this issue of suppression of free speech extremely serious,” he said.

Before O’Connor could finish speaking, a buzzer indicated his five-minute time allotment was up.

“I’ll be back,” he said.