People who speak in public but want to avoid dealing with pesky questioners use two techniques. One is to say that they will not take any questions. But that would reveal that they are scared or cannot defend their position and few people choose to do that. What they sometimes say instead is that they have another engagement immediately after the allotted time for the event and then they speak so long as to fill up the time. But another tactic is to demand that people submit their questions in writing in advance to a moderator and then have the moderator select only the friendly ones.
I have seen these tactics used by politicians and other well-known figures. But what is disturbing is when that the practice is adopted by small local organizations to control debate. Take the case of what happened at the Baltimore County School district public meeting to discuss the adoption of the new Common Core State Standards that is causing concern to some parents and educators.
I don’t wish to get into the details of the particular issue but focus on how that district deals with public comments.
The parents’ questions had to be submitted prior to the event and no new questions would be discussed. This angered some residents who felt the need to ask tougher questions than those selected by superintendents.
It is ridiculous for a school board to adopt the evasive tactics of cowardly politicians in a public forum to discuss policies. But what was worse was what happened when one audience member deviated from the rules.
One parent, Robert Small, very respectfully tried to voice his concerns and was shut out from participating when a policeman forcefully removed him from the auditorium.
Mr. Small was arrested and charged with second degree assault of a police officer with a second charge of disrupting a school function. He faces 10.5 years in jail if found guilty.
You can watch what happened.
Does this man deserve 10.5 years in jail?
It reminds me of the famous “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” incident in which 21-year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer who was tasered at a meeting at which John Kerry was speaking on September 17, 2007. Kerry continued to drone on from the podium even while there were screams of agony emanating from the victim in the aisles of the auditorium.
I have attended (and even run) public meetings where people in the audience spoke for too long or ramble from the point or are argumentative in their tone. It is hardly uncommon. That is part of the messiness of democracy and public participation and one learns to go with the flow.
There are ways to deal with such people. I remember when Obamacare was being discussed in Town Halls across the country prior to its adoption. Opponents, especially Tea Partiers, were attending these meetings in large numbers and dominating the public discussion with long tirades, often leading to shouting matches between supporters and opponents. I went to one such meeting at my university and the campus police was there, including its chief. Whenever someone seemed to be getting out of hand and there was a threat of rowdiness, he would personally go up to that person and quietly talk to him or her and defuse the situation. The meeting ended without any incident.
Usually, long–winded people who ignore requests from the chair to wrap it up will be shouted down by the rest of the audience. That is often the best and most effective way. If the rest of the audience does not do it, it usually means that the speaker has struck a chord with the audience and is reflecting genuine concerns. The thought of using security personnel to taser and/or forcibly eject a person who was only talking and then later charging them with an offense that carries jail penalties that exceed ten years is unconscionable.
And this practice of throwing the book at people over petty issues seems to be increasing especially with young people. Jonathan Turley writes about the case of a 15-year old student Christian Adamek who streaked at a football game. When he was told that he might be criminally charged and registered as a sex offender for what was a stupid prank, he committed suicide.
As Turley warns, it is often hard to pin down exactly what causes a suicide. But he does say that these kinds of excessive legal threats against students for stupid acts is growing and should be stopped.
It is hard to judge from the stories what emotional issues Christian may have been facing. However, the threats of criminal charges, and a sex offender listing, are ridiculous for a high school prank. We have seen a trend (here and here and here and here) of school officials criminalizing a wide range of conduct that was once treated matters for a sit down with parents and nothing more. It also reflects the seemingly exponential expansion of sex offender lists, which are increasingly put teenagers on a listing with lifelong burdens and stigma.
One of the subtle but serious side effects of the so-called ‘war on terror’ is that it has resulted in a public mindset that views even petty things as potentially serious matters worthy of throwing the full weight of the government at them. Once we have accepted that anyone who looks and sounds different might be a danger to the public, and that small amounts of liquids and shoes could be lethal weapons, and that agents of the government have the right to abuse us with impunity, that can spill over into condoning abuses of power that have nothing to do with national security and result in threatening people with serious punishments for what should be considered just petty offenses.