Charlie Buttrey

March 19, 2023

I served on the School Board of my little Vermont town for more than 25 years and, for the vast majority of that time, the few people who attended the meetings were civil and cordial. There was the occasional outlier, but democracy (and the First Amendment) can be messy.

Apparently, things were a little different in the town of Southborough, Massachusetts, where the selectboard adopted a “civility code” which requires that people attending the meetings engage in “respectful and courteous” discourse “free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks.”

Local citizen Linda Barron, who describes herself as “oppositional” (and who accused one of the selectboard members of “being a Hitler”) sued the town on the grounds that the code violates her First Amendment rights, and last week Massachusetts’ highest court found in her favor.

In so doing, the court acknowledged that Barron’s reference to Hitler was “certainly rude and insulting,” but was protected speech nonetheless. The town’s insistence on civility, the court wrote, “appears to cross the line into viewpoint discrimination: allowing lavish praise but disallowing harsh criticism of government officials.”  “Although civility can and should be encouraged in political discourse,” the court concluded, “it cannot be required.”


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