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Weber County leaders mull speech guidelines after meeting disruptions

By Tim Vandenack - | Oct 16, 2021

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

About 20 people attended a Weber County Commission meeting on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, when officials discussed the possibility of mandating mask use among some school kids to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

OGDEN — In light of disruptive actions by some audience members during Weber County Commission meetings in recent weeks, county officials are mulling guidelines governing “expressive activity” in such public venues.

The aim is to keep the public from bringing up issues that aren’t necessarily of relevance to county government and to prevent outbursts that can disrupt the flow of a meeting, an issue at some commission meetings of late. Officials emphasize that the aim isn’t to trample First Amendment speech rights.

“We live in an orderly society. We can’t just go and say whatever we want whenever we want because there are laws, there are other people who are trying to access governmental services,” said Chris Crockett a deputy attorney in the Weber County Attorney’s office. He’s helping craft the new policy, a focus of discussion at Tuesday’s county commission meeting.

Officials haven’t yet revealed specifics of the proposed policy, but they’re moving forward with the change. Commissioners on Tuesday approved the first reading of the measure and they are tentatively scheduled to take up final approval at their Oct. 19 meeting.

Broadly, the measure would spell out guidelines on public speech at venues like county commission meetings, as Crockett described it. The U.S. Supreme Court, he said, has deemed “time, place and manner restrictions” on speech to be constitutional and state statute also gives local governmental units leeway on the matter.

The measure would potentially spell out where peaceful protesting is permitted and guidelines on speech in “limited public forums” like government meetings, according to Crockett. Such guidelines, he said, could be the requirement to be recognized by the county commission chair to be able to speak, time limits on public comment and more.

At an Aug. 30 meeting of the county commission, several foes of mandates on the use of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 attended. Commissioners were discussing the COVID-19 response with Brian Cowan, director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department.

Several held up signs as commissioners spoke — two read “No lives matter to government” and “End medical fascism.” At least one attendee would write responses on notebook paper to issues the officials were discussing and hold the message up. That can be disruptive, officials say, and that’s the sort of activity they aim to curtail.

“As chair of this commission, I will not stand back, especially in this venue, and listen to those who aren’t educated on a particular topic disparage our county team or disparage this commission or attack us personally,” said Jim Harvey, chair of the county commission. “That’s not effective nor it is efficient. We have a responsibility to run efficient government here.”

The disruptions have prompted county officials to halt public comment period during commission meetings, at least for now. Moreover, officials have halted livestreams of commission meetings on Facebook and YouTube to guard against inappropriate outbursts making it onto the media platforms.

Commissioner Scott Jenkins said the issues brought up by the meeting disruptors run the gamut. “All over the place,” he said.

Crockett emphasizes that there are limits on the restrictions county officials can impose. “You can’t just pass whatever you want,” he said. “It cannot be related to viewpoint suppression. It has to be content neutral. … Has to be narrowly tailored.”

Similarly, Jenkins noted the right of the public to be critical of leaders. “I realize that as public servants, once in a while you have to take a beating a little bit. And I don’t mean a physical beating, I mean a psychological beating where somebody has the right to stand up and tell you that they really don’t believe in what you’re doing,” he said.

At the same time, Crockett noted instances when outbursts at meetings can make it tough to conduct official business. “If they seriously disrupt the procedure of a meeting, they can be removed for that. For example, you can’t just have somebody get up and filibuster your meeting and take control of it,” he said.

Harvey suspects some of the outbursts of late at county commission meetings come from advocates who haven’t been able to get traction in other media venues so they’re trying to tap the county’s media infrastructure. “They want to be relevant because they’ve failed to be relevant on their own platforms,” he said.

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