|Home Page||The First Amendment - Opinion|
|Source:||Richard B. White and Joy White|
Most people are aware of the form of censorship defined by the American Library Association As "the removal of material from open access by government authority." But there are other not so blatant forms of censorship, which can be Just as damaging to the free and public exchange of ideas so crucial in a democratic society.
These forms of censorship occur through unofficial government actions usually by individual officials and their supporters. Two of the most common methods of this subtle form of censorship are the demonization of people who dare speak against the status quo, and the marginalization of ideas contrary to those supported by government officials.
These types of censorship are not always easy to spot and are not necessarily the result of any thoughtful process by the official. In fact, they are just as likely to be the result of an emotional unthinking reaction. However, demonization and marginalization constitute a very real form of censorship because they inhibit and discourage citizen participation in government.
In Billerica, Massachusetts, government officials claim they understand that they have no censorship authority. And to our knowledge (But how would we know if they did?) have never overtly attempted to censor Billerica citizens. But two recent incidents involving our elected of officials cause us to question the sincerity of their claim.
Last August, Billerica resident Dave Delorey established a website (BillericaNews.com). The site consists of information about Billerica from history to weather. Mr. Delorey's site also provides quite a bit of information regarding the Zoning Board of Appeal, with particular emphasis upon the Board's granting of variances. We found it quite enlightening for instance, that this past November 1997, December 1997 and January 1998, the ZBA granted 92% of the variances requested.
Putting this information on the webeite for all the world to see was apparently too much for one ZBA member, who demanded that the Board of selectmen condemn the site. The selectmen did not go quite that far but the then Chairman Selectman O'Donnell did respond by calling the site the work of "a couple of malcontents."
Then this past February, we invited Billerica Health Director Jack Morris to appear on our local cable access program, "INSIGHTS", we felt Jack would not only provide insight into the workings of the Health Department. But offer his perspective on Billerica politics. The program went well. Mr. Morris was informative and as always a gentleman.
Soon after the program was cablecast, Mr. Morris was informed that he had been the subject of an "illegal,' discussion during a Selectmen's Executive (secret) Session. Mr. Morris was forced to file a Freedom of Information Act complaint in order to secure a copy of the audio tape of the meeting, since the Selectmen refused to give him A copy. Mr. Morris then had to contact the Middlesex District Attorneys' office in order to protect his rights as a town employee under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law. The audio tape Mr. Morris received confirmed several violations of the open meeting law by the Board of Selectmen.
Now maybe you are asking, so what do these incidents have to do with you? Why should you be concerned? Perhaps you believe Mr. Delorey and Mr. Morris are "asking for trouble" by being in the public eye and all this is just local politics as usual.
Well it is local politics as usual and that's exactly why it should concern every citizen of Billerica. When government officials attempt to demonize citizens for their opinions, and when elected officials illegally and secretly discuss the private associations and activities of public employees, the First Amendment rights of the entire community, are not just chilled but truly at risk. Ask yourself, What town employee would risk appearing on the "wrong" cable access program and expressing an opinion, or offering an idea that might improve the way our government works, if they risk being the subject of a Selectmen's "secret meeting"? And how many citizens will think twice before writing a letter to the editor for fear they might be labeled a "malcontent" or worse for simply expressing an opinion; an opinion which just might improve our community.
In both of the incidents described above, the selectmen inhibited the free flow of information and attempted to stifle positive public discourse. Maybe not overtly and perhaps not intentionally but by such behavior they have literally discouraged citizen participation in government and that is Just about as undemocratic as it gets.
The fact is that Mr. Delorey's First Amendment rights are not subject to the whims of the Selectmen, and attempting to stifle Mr. Delorey by labeling him a malcontent for publically expressing his opinions is an infringement upon his First Amendment Rights.
The fact is that Mr. Morris did not give up his citizenship when he decided to work for the town of Billerica. Mr. Morris has just has much right as the Selectmen to associate with whomever he chooses; to appear on any cable access program he chooses and to express his political opinions in public if he so chooses.
We often wonder if our elected and appointed officials were paying attention during civics class, because they sure seem to have difficulty with this democracy stuff". So in the name of public service we offer the following insight to all the self- appointed censors, word police and control freaks Among our government officials.
It in not the local, state or federal governments place to allow, permit or grant freedom of speech. We do not receive our first amendment rights from the government. That is not it at all! Rather, it is the constitution (... We the People...) that prohibits the government from inhibiting speech-- 200 years ago a revolutionary concept, and now in 1998 in Billerica an apparent foreign concept to come politicians.
We thank both Mr. Delorey and Mr. Morris for caring enough about Billerica to exercise their First Amendment rights by speaking out about injustices they see, and sharing with the community ideas that can improve our local government for all Billerica not just the politically connected.
As for the chagrined ZBA member, perhaps if rather than trying to censor people's opinions, he spent his time studying the zoning bylaw Mr. Delorey's website wouldn't be so full. And while we understand the Selectmen have many governing responsibilities we know "Town Censor" is NOT one of them.
These attempts at censorship and control of citizens opinions and activities by Billerica officials harm us all. We want to believe that our elected and appointed officials value the opinions of the entire community. We know they do on election day, but its the other 364 days they need to work on.
Copyright (c) 1998 BillericaNews. All rights reserved.