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Editorial: Willmar City Council should not try to restrict free speech

“Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

At a training session Monday, several members of the Willmar City Council discussed their perceived need to ban cell phone usage by members of the audience at public meetings in order to prevent texting, emailing and tweeting.

Why?

“Now (members of the audience) are texting during the meeting,” said council member Rick Fagerlie. “I see that (in the audience) and that is annoying.”

“Could not the mayor tell everyone in the room to just shut their cell phones off and that they should not be texting during a meeting,” said council member Ron Christianson. “It’s annoying.”

Christianson went on to call texting, emailing or tweeting by the public audience at City Council meetings as “annoying,” “intimidation” and “humiliation.”

Once again Christianson is being hypocritical.

He objects to the public using technology - such as tablets and mobile phones to text, email, tweet or take photographs - during public meetings because he believes it annoys, intimidates and humiliates him.

Yet he believes it is OK for him to use his iPad and mobile phone during public meetings for various tasks, including allegedly even taking pictures of the public audience at times.

Maybe his meeting time should be better spent by paying attention, rather than monitoring email, texts, tweets or who is in the audience.

Their desire to restrict mobile phones also shows their technology ignorance. The City Council live broadcasts their meetings via Willmar Regional Access Channel. So anyone watching can easily tweet, email and text without any restrictions under protection of the First Amendment.

The desire by some Willmar council members to restrict the rights of the public audience at their meetings is unfathomable. What part of the First Amendment do these public servants not understand?

Their ignorance of a basic American right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is, frankly, inexcusable.

Willmar is part of the American democracy, not a feudal kingdom.

Political speech is “the most highly protected kind of speech,” Jeanette Behr, a League of Minnesota Cities staffer told the Willmar City Council.

It would be very difficult to craft a ban (of mobile phones at a public meeting) that would withstand a legal challenge, Doug Gronli, another League of Minnesota Cities staffer, said.

And someone would probably challenge it in court, he said.

You can bet on that.

A public official talking about restricting free speech at a public meeting should be annoyed, intimidated and humiliated by his or her own intolerance.

A public official who cannot withstand the scrutiny of public questioning or criticism likely does not have a broad enough perspective to keep an open mind on all matters before any respective body.

The Willmar City Council should never attempt to limit the right of free speech anytime or anywhere in this city.

Those council members wishing to do so, would be be wise to remember the words of this famous American:

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” — Benjamin Franklin

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