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A primer on free speech Friday, July 29, 2005
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
Freedom of speech is such a fundamental American value that the founders put it first in the Bill of Rights.  It's therefore important enough that people who invoke it ought to know what it is -- and isn't.

Here's what the First Amendment says: "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."

What the "freedom of speech" part means is the government can't stop you from putting your words into a book, from publishing them in a newspaper or Web site -- as long as you print the book, newspaper or Web site.  The government can't force someone else to publish your words.  It can't stop you from speaking your mind in your own living room.  It can't stop you from renting a hall and expounding your politics to anyone who wants to listen.

But "freedom of speech" doesn't guarantee that you can say whatever you want, whenever you want and wherever you want.  You can't stand up in the middle of the movie and tell the audience what you think of the acting.  You can't interrupt the preacher to take issue with his sermon.  The First Amendment doesn't say you can tell off your boss without retribution.

Nor does the Constitution give any citizen the right to speak on any topic at any public meeting.  Some municipal boards regularly offer residents the opportunity to speak, even on matters not on the meeting agenda, but no law requires them to do so.

Framingham selectmen have long included a "public participation" period on their agenda, which has over the last year come to be dominated by a handful of individuals' loud denunciations of illegal immigrants.  Selectmen have shown remarkable patience, which ran out this week.  Chairman Katie Murphy refused to let one of the individuals speak on an issue previously addressed.  He resisted orders to sit down, until Murphy moved to call in the police.

The incident brought complaints that a citizen's freedom of speech was being violated, inspiring this First Amendment primer.  Under law, the chairman runs the meeting and decides who speaks.  No one's rights were violated.

That said, anyone presiding over a public forum should do so under a clear set of policies, uniformly enforced.  In a public forum, no one should be denied the podium just because of who they are.  Officials should set standards of civility, but they should apply to how a speaker expresses himself, not the content of his ideas.  While we sympathize with those who would exile "hate speech" from public discourse, that's a vague, content-based standard that could be used to define legitimate ideas as out-of-bounds.

Setting and enforcing uniform policies for public participation is difficult work, especially given some of the prickly personalities who demand their time in the spotlight.  Those who attend public meetings may expect the chair will enforce sound policies fairly, balancing public participation with efficient decision-making, but they should understand that the Constitution doesn't promise them unfettered access to the microphone.

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