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Resident Questions Tactic of Limiting Free Speech at Public Forum

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At the Select Board meeting on Tuesday, March 19, Hopkinton resident Scott Ober took exception to the manner in which the Select Board governs the public comment section of their meetings.

Ober began by reminding the Select Board of former Hopkinton police officer Pat O’Brien’s remarks from March 6, 2024. That evening, the Select Board was scheduled to consider placing Chief of Police Joseph Bennett on administrative leave pending the outcome of a criminal investigation. During public forum, O’Brien warned the Select Board against taking any action against the chief due to the highly sensitive nature of the Boston Marathon, and the security planning involved.

“This is a federally classified SEAR 1 event, which means it has a classification like the Super Bowl and the Presidential Inauguration,” said O’Brien. “Sgt. Bennett (sic) has been been involved in that for years…if he’s taken out of the picture my fear is that it will jeopardize everyone involved in this event.”

While Ober didn’t dispute the contents of Mr. O’Brien’s statement, he did take exception with the allotted time. By rule, each resident is allowed up to two minutes to speak.

“The Board allowed Pat O’Brien three minutes and 52 seconds to speak, uninterrupted,” said Ober. “He wasn’t once told he was nearing the two minute mark.”

Ober continued. “I feel a need to point this out because any other resident that comes before you during open forum, especially anyone who shares their feedback on the police chief, is interrupted before the two minute mark. This shows clear bias for whose comments you will listen to, and is another deterrent to keep our community from coming before you during a time when everyone should feel welcome to speak and expected to be treated fairly.”

>> WATCH: Ober’s full remarks

Ober was presumably referring to Board Chair Muriel Kramer’s timekeeping tactics during public forum. For the past several weeks, Kramer has been bullish in cutting people off after their two minutes have elapsed.

What Ober didn’t say, but is equally concerning to some residents, is Kramer’s tendency to warn speakers to “be careful” during their speeches. Kramer has done this multiple times during the past several meetings, ostensibly in an effort to maintain decorum.

In the February 27, 2024 meeting, Kramer said “Let me just make sure I say that it is not free speech to disparage individuals, professionals in public comment.”

When reached for comment by HopNews, Ober referred to Kramer’s repeated warnings as an “intimidation tactic.” 

“When people go to public forum to speak, it’s not necessarily a positive thing that they want to talk about. So when they’re warned by the Chair to ‘be careful’, it has a way of disrupting their argument and their train of thought, and it potentially stifles their freedom of expression,” he said.

The Board would be wise to heed Ober’s words.

In March 2023, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that “civility restraints on the content of speech at a public comment session in a public meeting are forbidden.

The case stemmed from a Southborough Select Board meeting in 2018, in which resident Louise Barron accused Board members of violating open meeting laws and spending town funds “like drunken sailors”. Selectman Daniel Kolenda then moved the meeting into recess, calling Barron’s remarks “slander”. 

Barron challenged Southborough’s public forum policy, which included a controversial clause. “All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal, or slanderous remarks,” read the policy.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Barron, and referred the case back to Worcester Superior Court, stating that Ms. Barron had a “plausible case that her civil rights had been violated“.

Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting,” the ruling said.

The Court recognized that the Select Board may set rules as to the time, place, and duration of comments at public hearings, but it has no authority to engage in what it called “viewpoint discrimination” by silencing citizens, even when they liken an elected official to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, as Barron did during the public forum. “Although a comparison to Hitler is certainly rude and insulting, it is still speech protected by Article 16,” wrote the court.

On February 27, a resident informed the Select Board of the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling, to which Chair Kramer hastily interjected “we’re aware”.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t thank you enough for writing this. Bravo HopNews!

    It seems that every time I speak, Muriel tells me to “watch it” or “be careful.” Scott Ober is absolutely right: When Muriel does that, it’s not only illegal but also meant to disrupt the speaker’s thought process. Muriel even (sort of) apologized to me after I spoke the last time. She said something about maintaining decorum, then proceeded to use language much worse than I did when giving the Chief his too-little-too-late “partial review.”

    I have never said anything out of line, such as revealing sensitive information (unlike board member Amy Ritterbusch and Chief Bennett), nor would I refer to anybody by a derogatory term. In addition, I’ve always been well within my legal rights every time I’ve spoken. Yet, Muriel continues to hush me.

    I don’t like to speak publicly, and until this year, 2024, I rarely did it. However, when I do speak, you can bet that, unlike members of the Select Board, I have done my research and that I have something meaningful to say.

    Muriel, stop trying to silence the citizens of Hopkinton; it’s illegal.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the suppression of constitutionally protected open dialogue by the Chair of the Select Board (and other members for not speaking up).

    There seems to be a pervasive attitude among some members of the Select Board (and a few town employees) that they can try to dictate the narrative. Their roles should be to represent the interests of the town and tax paying citizens by asking for input from all perspectives. Respectfully reviewing all viewpoints publicly and without bias is essential for rebuilding trust.

    Executive session seems to be invoked quite often too. Why did the Chair of the Select Board fail to get adequate legal and insurance advice prior to acting on the failures of the Police Chiefs, School Resource Officers, and other Town Officials? What was the communication flow between the town and the Prosecuter’s Office?

    Another specific example of a failure to manage town resources is the “bike path” added to West Main Street. There is no explicable reason for this misguided construction project. Money spent is tax payer funded (locally, state, or federally), so why waste it so blatantly?

    Six months after “completion”, I watched a small car try to drive on what resembles pavement. The solution for a year plus has been orange barrels with signs at every street entrance, reminding drivers that this disaster is not for vehicles. It is embarrasing.

    Instead, the new sidewalk is for what? There is no bicycle traffic. It is less safe with the elongated driveways. Long back-ups have exploded and a traffic study of Pleasant and Main Street is warranted. Why is the final plan/timeline being kept under wraps? We paid for the construction.

    Now, there is another ask for funding on the table. Mismanagement and a failure to budget and account for expense gaps must now be dealt with by raising taxes. When is it too much? When is the leadership going to be forced to turn over for new perspectives?

    Tens of millions of dollars worth of poor decisions created unncecesary financial exposure and a lack of accountability. Town wide decisions no longer feel like they represent the diverse interests of residents.

    We could change this by voting differently. A new Board could manage the town employees adequately and create real transparency. I would prefer to read about all of the positive things happening in Hopkinton. Would You?

  3. “Be careful” is another way to silence and intimidate those from speaking out and exercising their 1st Amendment Right. It is an effort to control the narrative to protect their own. Muriel only says “be careful” when someone is talking about her friends. “Be careful” of what Muriel?

    Again the SB believe in Freedom of Speech but only if it is in line with their point of view. This crew has got to go.

  4. “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
    Harry S. Truman
    August 8, 1950

  5. Thank you Mr. Ober for pointing this out. While the SB has the right to limit the time allowed for each speaker, they need to be consistent. Their bias is clearly showing when the “warnings” are only given to certain individuals. I hope members of the SB reflect on this, and treat all speakers equally moving forward.

  6. Will you be doing an article about the chief of Police’s contract? Including the provisions you mentioned at SB meeting?

    • I don’t know the origin; however, I imagine at some point the SB voted on the amount of time someone could speak and then that went into the bylaws and/or Select Board handbook.

      I looked up a few other town’s SB meetings and watched their open Forum comments to get an idea of how they are handled.

      There are varying ways Open Forum is handled:
      – Time allotted each person ranges from 2-3 minutes.
      -Total amount of time also varies. Some towns set the number of minutes they’ll have comments. For instance, one town allowed people to speak for 3 minutes and will hear comments for up to 15 min.; therefore, only the first five people are guaranteed to speak (there can be a line of people who aren’t heard).

      There are also several ways the time is monitored from the way we see in Hopkinton — someone watching their phone or watch and 1/2 focusing on the person speaking, to time clocks set that are facing the speaker.

      Overall, our Board’s Open Forum is pretty generous as people will continue talking, or they’ll decide to allow it (I once suggested residents donate their 2 minutes. I have no idea if that’s a thing, nor did they embrace it, but they allowed me to continue, with warning). So, no one has been ejected for continuing to talk. Also, the Board has allowed for everyone who wants to say something to get their time.

      With that said,
      —The interjections given by the Chair, to warn residents to “be careful” with their words, are troublesome (as HopNews points out).
      — The verbal alerts prior to the two minutes are also seen as interruptions to the message, and can give (to me) the feeling that watching the time is what’s getting the most attention.
      — The unarguable bias that was stated above was infuriating (to me) to witness in person. I was there.

      Unlike viewing on HCam or zoom, when you are at the meeting, you can see the Board members while residents talk.

      It’s easy to get a read on what they do and do not want to hear. Some board members will not even look up at the person speaking, EVER, and others may sit with their arms crossed and appearing annoyed.

      Whether Board members are aware of their body language is questionable; however, what was clear that Scott Ober pointed out above is that there was an undeniable difference in the monitoring of the time allowed (none) and the attention given to one person over others.

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