Amherst councilor mulls restrictions on public comment

Amherst Town Hall

Amherst Town Hall STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-30-2024 12:08 PM

AMHERST — An Amherst councilor may seek to place some restrictions on how public comments are made at Town Council meetings, such as requiring advance sign-up for those participating remotely, as a way of combating potential hate speech.

At a Town Council retreat on Wednesday, focused largely on prioritizing the council’s goals for the next year, the topic of how meetings are managed came up. The discussion followed two March meetings. The first, on March 4, when councilors adopted a call for a Gaza cease-fire at the end of a session where there was commotion from the audience, and the other, on March 18, when callers made what were viewed as racist, homophobic and hate-filled comments.

District 3 Councilor George Ryan said he intends to bring his concerns up at a Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee meeting and possibly propose a series of changes to how meetings are run. One of those changes would require anyone participating via Zoom to register in advance of the meeting and provide personal information to the council to confirm their identity.

With respect to the more recent meeting, Ryan said there was no means of stopping someone uttering hate speech, rather than staying focused on topics before the Town Council.

“It’s not addressed to anything, it’s just hate speech,” Ryan said of the comments that came from people who identified themselves as Amherst residents, though may have been people who have disrupted meetings elsewhere.

Even though Amherst could face legal action if any rules appear to curtail First Amendment rights, Ryan said he struggles with the idea that the council can’t shut off someone using pornographic words or phrases.

The risk of a lawsuit is worth it, Ryan said. “What’s wrong with being sued?”

But At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said such rules aren’t necessary.

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“It’s very distasteful to have to sit and listen to that, but we need to, because if we start regulating some speech, where does it stop,” Hanneke said.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier said she worries that placing restrictions on speech could legitimize certain speech, especially if courts ruled against the town’s methods. That is what happened in a 2023 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court related to Southborough’s rules requiring civility.

Council President Lynn Griesemer, who presides over the meetings, said she regularly anticipates that public comment could be challenging, but the current procedures state that the public can offer opinions without interruption until they have reached a specific time limit.

“In my view, this has worked reasonably well, except for offensive public comments, and some audience responses following comments that take away from other speakers time,” Griesemer said.

These rules have been discussed with Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe at length, she said.

O’Keeffe explained that it’s difficult to regulate speech without getting into First Amendment rights, and that time limits are essentially the most regulation the Town Council can do without being challenged in court.

When District 5 Councilor Bob Hegner asked if the Town Council could cut off people on Zoom when exceeding their time limits, by manually muting them, O’Keeffe said this wouldn’t be proper, since this is not done to people commenting while in person.

March 4 meeting fallout

Meanwhile, the Town Council discussed what happened at the March 4 meeting, held at the middle school auditorium to take up a resolution on the Israel-Gaza war sponsored by Amherst4Ceasefire.

Griesemer acknowledged that the situation that night deteriorated and became a “confused and chaotic scene.” She said she will make adjustments to her management, such as offering a reading period if there are amendments proposed, calling for a recess when people can’t hear and seeking and voting on motions to adjourn.

O’Keeffe read about behavior expected of councilors and the public and that if any councilor finds something is disruptive an appeal can be made for a recess.

Ryan suggested that adjournment was necessary that night, contending this is how the matter was handled in Northampton when its council took up a case-fire vote. “I need to hear from my colleagues about whether they share my sense that we should have adjourned. That meeting was out of control,” Ryan said.

“If people think that’s that OK, they need to say so,” Ryan said.

Hegner said the adjournment would have been the easiest solution. “If we’re faced with a situation like we were faced with, we just adjourn the meeting, and reconvene in 48 hours, reconvene on Zoom and have a discussion like we should,” Hegner said.

But Hanneke said the best option would have been to recess to bring things under control.

At-Large Councilor Ellsiha Walker, too, said a recess should be the first avenue for councilors faced with that situation. “I don’t think we should jump to adjourning. I think we should start with taking recesses,” Walker said.

District 1 Councilor Ndfreke Ette said councilors have a duty to speak and that discussion and deliberation are critical, but that couldn’t happen in that setting.

“I think what was lost that night was we were held captive by the desire to have a decision that night, and that limited our ability to discuss,” Ette said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.