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Who Will Tone Police The Tone Police?

A new amendment to Northampton City Council rules could chill dissent in The Chamber


On January 8th, after a four month long showdown over surveillance, Northampton City Council voted to uphold an ordinance that significantly limits the installation of police cameras downtown. The Council stood strong after Mayor Nakewicz’s troubling, nonsensical veto of the legislation. Once the fight was over and The Council had taken a strong stand against encroaching Orwellianism, three councilors pivoted in a radically different direction.

Ten days later, On January 18th, during their second official meeting of the calendar year councilors were in the news (including in The Shoestring) for passing resolutions supporting an increased minimum wage at the state level and another that supported state legislation to transfer to renewable energy by 2050.

But buried in the agenda on page fifty-four of fifty-six of the meeting packet, and not addressed until nearly the third hour of the meeting, the Council discussed an “Order to Amend the Council Rules.” The proposed order 18.015, which seeks to amend Council Rule 4.7, is worthy of attention. This reworked Conduct Clause — which was introduced by Councilors Bidwell, Nash, and Sciarra — asks that “Demonstrations from members of the public of approval or disapproval, or any actions that interfere with the ability of all in the Council Chambers to hear or see the Council conducting its business, will be not be permitted.” But from a legal perspective, this would likely violate the First Amendment because the language of the amendment is so poorly defined it is unenforceable.

In other words, The Council would need to clearly articulate the language so it could be enforced. For example, in courts, the rules demand absolute silence from the audience. Talking is not allowed, period — and rules can be enforced with actual force, such as an armed police officer. So, if The Council wants police officers dragging members of the public (or councilors, for that matter) out of the The Chamber for making any sound while someone else is talking, they need to pass a rule that says exactly that in a way that leaves no room for legal ambiguity.

It should be noted that the Conduct Clause would be an addition to an already existing clause which states: “City Councilors and members of the public shall conduct themselves with civility and respect at all times.” Currently the rule is enforced by the Council President with discretion. Yet, civility and respect are mushy words that are not defined and that are historically used to silence marginalized people and communities; in his email to The Shoestring, Ward-2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell acknowledges that the intent of the amendment is to “further define what is meant by civility and respect,” showing that these terms have no overarching meaning and can be given the definition that most benefits those in power. And thus, we believe, whether on its own or in conjunction with the new proposed Conduct Clause, this existing clause risks being weaponized to silence the public.

“Members of the public have told us that they too have had difficulty hearing sometimes because of distracting noise in the room,” Bidwell told The Shoestring in an email. Sciarra echoed the sentiment in a different email. The implication is that this rule change would increase participation from the public because noise would be quelled, allowing people to hear better. For starters, the microphones in the chambers do not adequately amplify the public or councilor’s voices. Take this video of Bidwell talking during the meeting. The public isn’t there, but coughing councilors makes his commentary nearly inaudible. Blair has seen older attendees needing to cup their ears in order to hear in The Chamber. Clearly some cocktail of noise — be it coughing, talking, or something else — and lacking microphones are to blame.

“I know we all agree that our public meetings should be accessible to all and that everyone has the right to participate, that includes being able to hear what each other has to say,” Sciarra said in an email. If accommodating the public is truly motivating this rule change, perhaps The Council, now that it is aware of some of these issues, will look into a better microphone system, a water fountain, or language about accommodating those who don’t speak English.

Support for this proposed amendment is in no way unanimous. “When we start to require [decorum] I think we run into trouble,” councilor Dwight charged during the meeting. “I think then we start pushing [the public] away in the name of us doing efficient business.” Of course The Council should be able to conduct its business and hear, but we mustn’t forget that the business they are conducting is that of the people of Northampton’s.

Councillor Klein also had doubts about the proposed order — and its intent: “To codify [rules about civility] feels like we’re the teachers and we’re waggling [wagging] our fingers at the problematic children.” Adding, “I don’t like the tone [of the order] to be perfectly direct and honest about it.” Pointing to tone is interesting here because it is the proxy by which much of the battle over surveillance cameras has been fought. Complaints about tone and process have been among the favorite talking points of both the pro-police-camera contingent and even some councilors who were against surveillance. (And never mind that the pro-camera cohort had a tough time engaging critically with studies, research, and the like. Furthermore, the complaints about tone — and subsequent calls for “respect and civility” — against women, queer, and non-binary members of the public often came from older men with power and standing in the community.) In this light, the fact that councilor Klein called out the “tone” of an article that could be used to stifle public participation is very significant.

Working on this piece — after having been to countless Council meetings and having been involved in the process — Will couldn’t help but remember Police Chief Kasper’s presentation to the community where she proposed installing cameras initially. There she suggested that she wanted to put up cameras to watch protesters and then, without a hint of irony, told the audience that she enjoys protesting with her family. Which isn’t unlike the fact that members of The Council spent nearly five months on legislation designed to temper state power (with all of its authoritarian undercurrents) and then turned the other cheek to embrace a rule that could potentially suppress public participation.

This move must be seen in relation to actions designed to squelch loud-mouths and dissenters around the country. Beyond the effort to criminalize solidarity, as one writer put it, with regards to the J20 protests last year, lawmakers in at least ten states have introduced legislation to criminalize peaceful protest. One such bill in North Carolina would make it illegal to heckle politicians.

What worries us most about this action is that members of the community who were engaged in the anti-surveillance fight were able to build political power using the explicit actions that members of The Council are now trying to extinguish. Maybe after realizing that democracy is messy and involves both the consent, dissent, and input of the public, certain councilors would rather make policy with the input of the police department. We hope this is not the case. But because of the the fact that this order was completely buried in the agenda and not mentioned until after reporters and the public had left, we have to wonder whose voices they want to hear.

[Update 2/15: The Conduct Clause has been referred to the Legislative Matters Committee, where, on Monday, the new proposed language was crossed out, 3-0, by Klein, Carney, and Dwight. After the new language was struck, they gave the amendment a positive recommendation. Below is a scorecard of the Conduct Cause as it is currently stated based on emails sent to the councilors and  their comments during the City Council Meeting.]

[Update on The Scorecard 2/15: Carney is against, and we believe that Nash might be able to be moved, though we’re not holding our breath. We still don’t know where LaBarge stands.]

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1 Content-based censorship of speech restrictions receive the strictest scrutiny of the courts. Such censorship is allowed only if the court believes it to be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” See, e.g., Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 655 (1990); Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 334 (1988) (plurality); see also Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191, 198 (1992) (plurality); Board of Airport Comm’rs v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U.S. 569, 573 (1987); Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense and Educ. Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 800 (1985); United States v. Grace, 461 U.S. 171, 177 (1983); Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983).

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