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Saturday, July 31, 2010

CCLU Lawyer: P&Z Decorum Policy is “Problematic”

By James Lomuscio

The Westport Planning and Zoning Commission’s new decorum policy banning signs and T-shirts expressing a view is “problematic” according to an attorney for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU).WestportNow.com Image
Supporters of the Westport Family Y’s move to Mahackeno wore yellow T-shirts at the opening of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s hearings on the application in March 2008. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.com

“Messages on T-shirts are often a constitutionally protected form of expression,” said David McGuire, the CCLU’s staff attorney based in Hartford.

“A ban on speech related to an item before a municipal body is problematic because it constitutes the most highly protected form of speech.”

McGuire was reacting to the new policy approved last week which says: “In order to minimize disruptions or distractions, the following behaviors will not be permitted at our meetings: displays of any kind on any surface including but not limited to clothing and signs.”

“A ban on shirts with messages that support or oppose an item before a commission goes against the spirit of our democracy and government,” McGuire added.

That is not how Ron Corwin, P& Z chairman, sees it. He called the policy essential so that those attending meetings can present their positions “without interruption, distraction or fear of intimidation.”

Therefore, no abusive language, no profanity, no jeering, no applause, no demonstrations – and no signs even if those signs take the form of clothing, i.e., T-shirts.

“This commission is firmly committed to both the principles of free speech and appropriate decorum at its public meetings in order to allow for a full exchange of opinions and views on the issues before it,” said Corwin.

“Our meetings are ‘limited public forums’ where decorum guidelines must protect the rights of individuals and be applied evenhandedly, not favoring one side or the other,” he added.

The new policy has drawn mixed reviews from Westporters. Ed Moeller of Sue Terrace,  feels the policy is aimed at limiting freedom of expression.

“What they’re saying is that no representatives of a group at a P&Z meeting can be visually identified,” said Moeller. ”That’s completely un-American.”

Moeller was one of several neighborhood residents who turned out at a P&Z public hearing in March to object to the expansion of the Homes with Hope’s Linxweiler House on Post Road East to accommodate more homeless and emotionally impaired individuals.

Mark Fisher, Moeller’s neighbor, held up a sign stating “No” at that meeting, and Corwin said it was disruptive.

Moeller argued that sitting with a “No” sign is a matter of free expression and not the same as “standing up and yelling.” He says the new policy raises even more concern as it extends to clothing that denotes support or opposition.

Indy Goldberg, co-director of Y Downtown, a group that opposes the Westport Weston Family Y’s move from downtown to Camp Mahackeno, tells a different story. She feels the decorum policy is needed to prevent intimidation.

“Having lived through it with the Y, I understand that it could be intimidating to others and to the commission,” she said.

Goldberg said that when she and members of her group got up to speak against the Y’s move at a P&Z meeting in 2008, she felt overwhelmed by a large number of residents sporting T-shirts with the slogan, “Make Mahackeno Happen.”

“You’d look out, and all you would see is a sea of yellow shirts,” she said.

Goldberg added that her group never resorted to signs or T-shirts.

“I find it interesting that they (P&Z) are doing it now after the Y got their approvals,” she added.

Y Downtown currently has a lawsuit pending against the P&Z for issuing the Y a special permit. 

Ira Bloom, Westport Town Attorney, said in an e-mail that he is currently out of the country and has not had to opportunity to review the amended decorum policy.

He did state, however, that he has been working with Corwin “on this issue for many weeks.”

“The P&Z meeting room is a ‘limited public forum,’ which means that reasonable limits on speech which tend to cause disruption or intimidation are allowed,” said Bloom.

“I know that the P&Z’s goal is to create an environment where every speaker feels free to express his or her views fully and freely in a neutral and inviting forum.”

The adopted decorum policy includes the following principles:

•      Individuals are welcomed, indeed invited, to address the commission during the public comment period of any application.

•      All speakers are free to speak for, against or about those agenda items

•      Speakers may speak only when recognized and at the podium

•      In general, the public is asked to show respect for the statements of others, the right of all speakers to be heard, not interrupted, argued with or otherwise disrupted or behave in any way that limits the speaker’s ability to present his/her views

•      No demonstrations of support or opposition such as applause for or jeering of speakers

•      In order to minimize disruptions or distractions the following behaviors will not be permitted at our meetings: displays of any kind on any surface including but not limited to clothing and signs

•      Speakers from the general public may be asked to observe informal time limits in order to allow time for everyone to speak.

•      No profanity or abusive language or personal criticism will be permitted.

Full copies of the Corwin’s statement and the policy are available at the P&Z Office in Town Hall and on the town’s Web site.

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Posted 07/31/10 at 09:00 AM  Permalink



Comments

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I can see a problem with signs, which may make it difficult for people in the back to see, but the ban on t-shirts is quite different and overreaching.

Often, it is difficult for everyone who wants to be heard at these meetings to get time to speak. The t-shirts are a simple way to show support. I think a review of the videos from those proceedings tells the story in terms of intimidation, disrespect and belligerent behavior towards speakers and the commission members. There was no monopoly on inappropriate behavior, and I support the enforcement of the other items as long as it is done uniformly.

Simply wearing a shirt that identifies support for one side or the other, however, is hardly intimidating in and of itself, unless knowing that your position has significant opposition is intimidating. If the behavior of those wearing t-shirts is inappropriate, that is already covered under the other rules.

Posted by Adrian Bowles on August 01, 2010 at 05:50 PM | #
 

1st. Amendment Constitution: Freedom of Religion, press, EXPRESSION!
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of SPEECH, or the press; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE PEACEABLY TO ASSEMBLE, AND TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVENCES.
Apparently we have six members of the commission that want to take away your right to freedom of speech and expression. CATHY WALSH is the only TRUE PATRIOT on the P&Z;Commission.
The P&Z;‘s commissioners job is to read and interpret our P&Z;regulations and apply them correctly. If they cannot read and interpret our constitution correctly it is no wonder that their decisions are always being questioned by the public. No wonder there are so many ANGRY people coming to your meetings!!!

Posted by Shayne Phares on August 02, 2010 at 01:01 PM | #
 

The members of the commission work hard to deal with the issues before them and with very energized citizens who can get unruly and downright nasty. I have seen them take more abuse than I would be willing to take in that role. 

While I disagree with this policy regarding clothing, I think it is unfair and unproductive to question someone’s patriotism for trying to improve the process. Their goal is laudable.

Posted by Adrian Bowles on August 02, 2010 at 01:44 PM | #