A stereotype attributed to many Massachusetts residents is that they are obnoxious, loud, and rude.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, however, said residents of the Bay State have the constitutional right to embrace these traits–even in public meetings.
In a case involving Southborough resident Louise Barron calling the town’s Selectboard, “drunken sailors,” the court ruled that the board’s decision to silence Barron infringed on her right to assembly.
For elected officials in North Attleborough, the ruling means the town cannot enforce rules that silence the public from saying things interpreted as rude or uncivilized.
Their response to the ruling? “It is what it is.”
Town Council President Justin Pare said the ruling made sense to him, agreeing with the court’s belief that everyone has a right to assemble and comment in public meetings.
“People have a constitutional right,” Pare said. “No one should infringe upon that.”
Pare said he also does not expect residents of North Attleborough to be as blunt with their words as Barron was to the Southborough board. He described the ability to make a public comment as a superpower people have and believes those who choose to speak will do so with thoughtfulness.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Pare said, quoting Marvel’s Spider-Man. “You gain goodwill by inviting people to come to our meetings.”
John Donohue, a member of the Bylaw Subcommittee, agreed with Pare, but said public meetings should prepare for the possibility of people with what he calls, “shorter fuses.”
“One of the things, especially now, with how things have changed in our country, we have people with short fuses,” Donohue said. “If you are doing a public meeting, you have to set guidelines so the audience knows what’s allowed and what is not allowed.”
Donohue said the town is still permitted to incorporate rules to determine how long a person can speak during the public comment section of a meeting.
The Massachusetts open meeting law states that “The public is permitted to attend meetings of public bodies but is excluded from an executive session that is called for a valid purpose listed in the law.”
The law does not state how a member of the public must act in their public comments but says they can be removed if they are being disruptive when they are not called upon to speak by the person who is chairing the meeting.
Donohue expects elected officials to be ready to handle those who are disruptive but said the court’s ruling will take some time to adjust to.
“This is a new wrinkle,” he said. “It’s just something we got to get used to. As a chairperson, it’s almost like you have to develop a thick skin. You can’t let it take you off your game.”