The County Commission has recently passed a resolution that will prohibit discussion of issues the commissioners consider closed by citizens in the “citizens will be heard” section of the Commission meetings. While apparently reasonable on its face, the restriction is designed specifically to prevent any more discussion of the Biomass plant. Commissioners have been quoted in the paper as saying they just don’t want to hear anymore about it. A law designed to prevent a citizen from discussing a particular subject is prior restraint. I taught Constitutional law at VSU for 28 years and I think this resolution is unconstitutional for that reason. One cannot separate the intent from the prohibition.
I can also argue that the restriction itself is unreasonable because
it limits speech by content to what the commissioners consider closed. What is to prevent the commissioners from finding everything they don’t like or don’t want to listen to closed? That gives very broad powers to a small group that the very existence of a “citizens will be heard” section of the agenda denies. If the commissioners can tell citizens to say only what the commissioners want to hear, there’s really no need for a “citizens will be heard” place on the agenda. Citizens are already limited to public issues and by time constraints. Now the Commission wants to dictate the topics of discussion within the category of public issues. That’s prior restraint.
The restriction is unreasonable also because it prevents the Commission from getting new information on a subject it considers closed. It is denying itself the opportunity to change its mind or adjust to new conditions. Worse, it is closing its ears to its citizens while remaining open to other sources. These other sources have an informal, nonpublic access denied to citizens.
The commissioners do not have to listen attentively to what citizens say, but they do have to listen. It’s what they were elected to do. They don’t get to pick and choose what they hear.
Dr. Jane Elza