Monday, September 27, 2010

Since Your Town Elders Are Twitter Fans...

Each month, Wired magazine publishes a column titled "Dear Mr. Know-It-All" in which a Wired contributor helps readers "navigate life in the 21st century." In the October edition, Mr. Know-It-All explains the powers and limits of city councils regarding First Amendment rights when he answers one reader's question:

"My town council has banned me from attending its meetings because I criticized one of its members on Twitter. (OK, OK, I called him a "f*cking idiot.") Can they really do that?"

After the jump, Mr. Know-It-All's answer.

"It would be one thing if you'd been barred from a homeowners' association or Rotary Club meeting -- private organizations have carte blanche to bounce anyone who dares questions their awesomeness. But local governments must act in accordance with a little doohickey called the First Amendment. That means they're rarely allowed to bar people from their public forums.

The council has one shot a making its ban stick. 'If they can show that the person would be very disruptive, that might work,' says David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar at the Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center. But unless you've wreaked havoc at past meetings -- say, by tossing chairs or burning effigies -- the council will have a tough time proving its case. The city of Dayton, Ohio, learned that lesson the hard way in 1997, after it was sued by a man who'd been kicked out of a public commission meeting for wearing a ninja mask. An appeals court ruled in favor of the ninja, finding that his menacing attire was a protected form speech (this despite the fact that everyone knows that ninjas don't talk).

Lawsuits are an expensive pain, so you should try to find a way of changing the council's mind before resorting to the courts. Since your town elders are obvious Twitter fans, how about using the microblogging service to make them (and fellow townsfolk) aware that you're in the constitutional right here? Just be polite about it -- save the f-bombs for the next atrocious zoning blunder."

Not that this question and answer applies directly to R-Town. In Richardson, it's the council members themselves who are doing the tweeting and members of the public who are asking the council to ban the practice (and ban winking, too). But there's at least one member of the council willing to go along. And, the council did impose a five-minute time limit on members of the public speaking to the council, so maybe an attempt to limit electronic communications could gain some support after all. Look out, ninjas. You may be next.

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