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In defense of free speech

In Defense of Free Speech in Boca

by Les Wilson

There’s a poignant internet meme warning of the dangers of “Cancel Culture” and “Political Correctness” as a means of control by elites. In the accompanying BocaFirst article “First Amendment Retaliation?”, guest author Bruce Diller Verstandig recounts his recent experience where speaking during the public comment section of a Greater Boca Beach and Parks District meeting resulted in a commissioner filing a police report against him. See his article for details.

Allowing your speech to be controlled by others allows others to control you.
INTERNET MEME: Allowing your speech to be controlled by others allows others to control you.

Limits on Free Speech

There are categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution such as yelling “FIRE” in a theater. But according to the Supreme Court, there are other limits. A Wikipedia article cites these examples:

  • obscenity
  • fraud
  • child pornography
  • speech integral to illegal conduct
  • speech that incites imminent lawless action
  • speech that violated intellectual property law
  • true threats 
  • commercial speech such as advertising
Wikipedia on legal limits of FreeSpeech

Free Speech at City Hall

Actions to limit speech during public comment periods in Boca’s City Hall is not new. In 2012, then mayor Susan Whelchel would not permit a resident to criticize the city council: 

However, later in the meeting, Council Member Anthony Mahjess challenged Mayor Whelchel on her position which resulted in City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser finding Mayor Whelchel was incorrect: “… people are allowed to enter criticism.”

Other attacks on resident’s rights

Another action to suppress speech in City Hall was when former Council Member Constance Scott famously floated the idea of an ordinance to fine residents for organizing and speaking against a development project. When she posed the idea, City Manager Leif Ahnell rebuked her saying “They are exercising their rights … We, as per our charter, have processes that other communities don’t have and provide additional rights other communities don’t have. That’s something anyone wanting to do a project in Boca has to evaluate.”   

But the real existential threat to residents came from a developer’s attorney during the February 2nd 2019 CRA meeting about the Camino Square project.

It begs the question “if council members cannot consider resident input, do residents have the rights put forth in the city charter?”

There, co-council for the applicant attorney Michael Moskowitz made the legal argument that resident input could not legally be considered by the council to deny or approve unless they were technical experts and had studied the project. It begs the question “if council members cannot consider resident input, do residents have the rights put forth in the city charter?”

Then there’s mocking

Lastly, there is mocking that inhibits speech. But barring legally limited speech, who is to pick and choose speech that is permissible and speech that is not?

Ideas have consequences

Thomas Jefferson said “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” In the article “Should there be limits on Freedom of Speech?“, Ben Wizner of the ACLU considered the alternatives to our constitutional right to free speech. He concluded:

 “The alternative is far more dangerous. A society in which provocative speech could be punished would be a society without controversial politics, or art, or ideas. It would be a society in which citizens feared expressing dissident thoughts. In short, it would be a society wholly alien to America’s founders who, after all, had some pretty provocative ideas of their own.”

Ben Wizner

Indeed. As a watchdog blog, BocaFirst exists under the right to free speech and seeks to give voice to Boca’s residents and businesses. I’ve listened to the video of Mr Verstandig’s public comments and read the police report filed by the elected Beach and Parks commissioner. I’m not an attorney but I think Mr Verstandig has a point. Thanks to free speech and freedom of information, you have access to it yourself and can come to your own conclusion. And don’t forget, your vote is also your voice. 

Boca Raton City Council Member responses to Mr Verstandig raising the issue at the January 7 2020 City Council Workshop.

The Boca City Council agrees. Here’s their responses:

Mayor Singer 0:00

Jeremy Rodgers 0:42

Andrea O’Rourke 1:09

Andy Thomson 7:02

Monica Mayotte 7:40

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