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18 Mar

Some wicked news for Massholes: Bay Staters’ right to be as insolent at town assemblies as they are behind the wheel was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The state’s high court unanimously ruled that towns cannot require residents to act civilly in public meetings.

Politeness vs. freedom of assembly

The main plaintiff in the case was 71-year-old Louise Barron of Southborough, MA. Barron sued after her brash behavior got her threatened with removal from a town meeting under rules requiring civility. She was uncivil: In a heated argument, Barron accused the town’s Select Board of spending taxpayer funds “like drunken sailors” and told one member “to stop being a Hitler.”The court opined that local governments should encourage polite discourse but deemed Southborough’s public meeting civility rules a violation of citizens’ constitutional right to criticize public servants. 

Mixed opinions: While some critics worry the decision will embolden cantankerous constituents, freedom of speech advocates welcomed it. Bellicose exchanges in town meetings are as much a Massachusetts tradition as sipping on a Dunks medium iced while plowing snow after a mighty nor’easter.

Zoom out: Discussions in public meetings have reportedly become more combative nationwide, as passions have run high over Covid policies and other contentious issues.—SK

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