Op-Ed: What is Free Speech, Really?

By: Stephanie Endres

Quoting Wikipedia, “freedom of speech is the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction.” 

The Johns Creek City Council established an ordinance when the city was formed to limit free speech at city council meetings to 30 minutes at the beginning and end of each meeting with each individual only being allowed to speak for 3 minutes. 

Since I was elected, I have supported allowing any individual who wants to speak to the council the ability to do so without placing an arbitrary 3-minute limit on their opportunity to address the Council.

A proposal is being made to lock down the rules with council members going on the record to continue the 30 minutes maximum time limit, but permit individuals 5 minutes each. 

In my experience, residents come to the council meetings to give public comment for 3 reasons: sharing information, looking for support, or expressing frustration.  Ninety percent (90%) of the public comments can be categorized as expressions of frustration, and folks come to council meetings to share their frustration because they don’t feel like their views were heard through the normal channels of phone calls or emails.

The public comments provided at the council meeting held on May 22, 2017, lasted for 80 minutes and were comprised of 19 individuals speaking on topics ranging from Taylor Road Middle School students winning the robotics award, concerns regarding the perceived over-development of Cauley Creek, issues with voting in the last election, history of the Rogers Family, purchasing the former Dean Gardens property, ICC Permissive Codes, Linear Park development, Pocket Park development, and recommendations for traffic relief on Medlock Bridge. 

If only 6 individuals spoke, who would win the ability to share their information and who would lose the right to speak?  What direct, public venue will residents have to get the attention of the elected representatives that sought their vote?

Why would council members wish to restrict public comment?  The reasons shared by council members are:  “There is business that must be conducted and we need to spend time on the actual business”. ” We have families at home and don’t want to be here all night”. “Why should the individuals who are here to participate in zoning hearings or presentations of awards have to be subjected to all this negativity?”.

My belief is the city council meeting is the meeting of the people. It is housed in a building that was paid for by the residents, and lead by the individuals that were duly elected to represent the people’s interests.  No matter how long it takes, all individuals should be able to speak and be heard as these comments directly relate to the decisions the council is being asked to make.

The first amendment to the US Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 

The Johns Creek City Council is our Congress and when an ordinance is passed to restrict public comment, it is directly prohibiting free speech and restricting the ability of citizens to petition the government for redress of grievances publicly. 

So if this restrictive ordinance is passed, do we have free speech in Johns Creek at City Council Meetings, really?

34 Responses to Op-Ed: What is Free Speech, Really?

  1. Ed Thompson says:

    If our elected representatives don’t want to hear from us, perhaps they should reconsider their decision to run for office in order to serve the people.

    I applaud Councilwoman Endres – she has consistently made a motion to suspend the time limits set for Public Comment on the City Council Meeting agenda. She has also made the time to attend the many “informational” meetings that have been held around sensitive subjects so she can hear first-hand from Johns Creek residents. Several of her peers on the Council have made themselves scarce during those same meetings.

    Here’s a thought since we’re on the topic of limits: while we have representatives who seek to limit input from their constituents, perhaps we ought to be considering TERM LIMITS for our elected officials. The representatives on City Council who tend to support Public Comment limits are also the same City Council representatives who are against term limits. Coincidence???

  2. Suzi K says:

    I agree with Stephanie, too.
    When I watch the meetings’ videos, I find the homeowners’ comments much more interesting than some of the city council’s. Maybe the city meetings should be interactive with the residents
    throughout the whole meeting. Wishful thinking! 🙂

  3. Stop the Boy Scouts says:

    What we really need to eliminate at nearly every city council meeting is the honoring of Boy Scouts. It takes up too much valuable time and was started by long-gone city councilman Ivan Figueroa. A long proclamation is read to each Boy Scout separately, then each is given a book separately, and finally each has his own separate photo session while residents wait for the important discussion of city business to take place. Often, up to 4 Boy Scouts are honored and this wastes the first half hour which is prime effectiveness time for any meeting as studies show that most people’s minds start to wander after 20 minutes. The Boy Scouts are ALREADY honored by their own organization. My brother was an Eagle Scout so I respect this organization, but not their monopoly of our city meetings. If we eliminate honoring the Boy Scouts, we should be able to listen to residents concerns about city business. To date, only two Girl Scouts have been honored, and no other organization is singled out to be honored the way the Boy Scouts are. If honoring the Boy Scouts is more important than public comment, then at a minimum, all of them should be honored together rather than individually.

    • Editor says:

      This does seem strategic to fill up the meeting and tire people out before zoning cases, etc.

      If our Elected Officials (well Mayor, as he is the person who sets the agenda) truly cared for our students and Boy/Girl Scouts, they wouldn’t schedule these proclamations on a School Night.

      Don’t take my word for it, watch them nod off during the meetings and then scurry out of the meeting after they get their book. Some don’t even show up!

      Everyone knows Fulton County schools have an early start time, and keeping these kids (& Parents!) up on a Monday night is inappropriate.

      By the time they get home, the children quite often have homework, dinner, and baths.

      It would be more sensible to reserve a 5pm Work Session or Saturday afternoon once a quarter and honor all of them in a nice ceremony.

      • Boy Scouts Quarterly says:

        That’s a good idea, honor the Boy Scouts as a group quarterly. Read the proclamation speech ONCE to the group and pass out the books for them. This solution might be more fun for them too as there will be a crowd of Boy Scout parents to view the event.

    • EJ Moosa says:

      Agreed. Let the Council Members go out and see the projects in person, and then award the Scout their award.

      Or have an Awards night once a month for all recipients: Scouts, sports teams, math teams, robotic teams etc,

      Honor them in front of their peers. Stream the events so their family and friends can see.

      The Public Comments period is too important to restrict if there are residents who have taken their time to speak out on the issues that are concerning them.

      A representative government that shuts down Public Comments represents what?

      Certainly not me.

  4. Timefornewleadership says:

    The mayor and his council of rubber stampers are like Hillary. Total disconnect from people’s lack of trust in her and her buddies. A total unwillingness to listen and respect views that are different from theirs.

    No high density. No expansion 141. No hud. No billboards. After the Cauley creek embarrassment and wasted money what’s next.

  5. Craig W says:

    Ms. Enders, what a sophomoric statement. No organization can function effectively if it’s meetings can be hijacked by any agenda for any length of time. I can make a point in 3 minutes time. A public comment is not a speech. Set the example; you could offer to remain after the meeting is adjourned to listen to whoever comes along…I’m sure you’re family will understand.

    • Marissa S. says:

      I’ve not seen any meeting hijacked whatsoever. Two years ago some of the “veteran” council members were complaining that the comments were from the same old people. Now they are going to complain that there are too many?

      Now we have new faces commenting. Council Member Endres listens to anyone at anytime by the way.

      It’s those veteran council members that are the ones that need to hear the comments. They are the ones attempting to “hijack this city” and make it into something the residents have never sought.

      Yet it’s hard to tell if they are even paying attention when the comments are being made. They are not allowed to comment or respond(Bodker’s Choice I believe) and so there is no way to really tell. The cameras should show both the speaker and the faces of the council members on a split screen so we can tell at home.

      What is Bodker’s campaign motto going to be? Vote for me but keep your mouth shut?

      Thank you but no.

  6. Marsh says:

    Not like Hillary, but exactly like 45. His cronies are the rubber
    Stampers and he is in “total disconnect” with this country
    as the popular vote shows .

    • Barry says:

      Sorry Marsh, but without California, 45 won by over 1 million votes, without California and New York, 45 won by over 3 million votes and overall, 45 won nearly 2700 counties of the 3100+ counties in the United States. Stay on point. This is Johns Creek we’re talking about, not the U.S. and none of us ever want to talk about Hillary again.

      • Lydia says:

        Barry, what’s YOUR point re: whose votes should count? Only count counties, not people (Georgia has 159 counties and 10.3 million people, CA has 58 counties and 39.2 million people)? Over half the population in the US lives in just 9 States – let’s just not count (or only count) the other 41?

        • Barry says:

          The point IS that you don’t want one or two outlier states speaking for all fifty states. Every state needs to have a say, not just the two most populous ones. That is exactly why our founding fathers established the electoral college. In their day, they were afraid one state (Virginia) could overide the other twelve states. 2016 was a perfect example. a 3M vote edge for one candidate goes to 3M votes behind because of just two states. Our founding fathers were very wise indeed!

          • mimitw says:

            We should eliminate an antiquated system that allows the minority of voters to overrule the majority, which has happened twice already this century. Maybe Barry we should instead not count Florida and Texas. After all, they are full of foreigners. Quit cherry-picking facts.

            • N Hale says:

              As a Constitutional Republic, the founding fathers specifically set up the electoral college so that every state could be heard. And we are a Union of States not a country of citizens. The entire system was based on states independence and rights to ensure the rights of the individual are not trampled by the mob.

              In a Democracy, there are two wolves and one sheep and the question up for debate is what is for dinner. Electoral college ensures the sheep still has a voice.

              It was set up to protect a small state with smaller populations from large states with massive populations.

              We are all better served understanding our history and our founding. Otherwise we lose the very fabric of what has made us strong and independent as individuals, states and a country.

    • CT says:

      Really Marsh? If California voters determined election outcomes the rest of us might as well stay home. Thank God they do not!!!

      Take a good look at their self-proclaimed great state. It’s not. Not at all. Broken and corrupt in so many ways…

      CA is financially insolvent- just one of the MANY BIG problems they have.

      Besides, Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein are homegrown Californians. Need I say more??

      Like most liberals they are about BIG GOV, just like Bodker, (and Hillary by the way)

      Term limits please.

      Based on what you say here you don’t like 45, but hopefully you respect the office and are not one of the those haters that do not.

      I personally despised Obama on almost every thing he stood for, but he was our elected president and deserved the respect of all Americans. Just like 45 does! Like it or not.

      • mimitw says:

        CT, do America a favor and stay home next election. The S&P rating of California debt. It is AA- (Superior). California compared to other countries GDP is in the same range as China, Spain, and Italy. The economy of California is the largest in the US. You can’t say the same for any of the southern red states.

        • CT says:

          @mimitw, the logic you state here is illogical.
          By what you rudely say here suggests you are among those that choose any kind of statistics (inaccurate even) that support what they want to believe, rather than reality. For certain, what you directed at me above implies you are among those that attempt to silence (shout down) those that do not share your beliefs.

          As for CA being “Superior”, due to its S&P AA- rating. it simply isn’t.

          Perhaps you might want to read their disclaimer in their own words.

          “S&P Global Ratings Disclaimers
          The analyses, including ratings, of S&P Global Ratings and its affiliates (together, S&P Global Ratings) are statements of opinion as of the date they are expressed and not statements of fact or recommendations to purchase, hold, or sell any securities or make any investment decisions. S&P Global Ratings assumes no obligation to update any information following publication. Users of ratings or other analyses should not rely on them in making any investment decision. S&P Global Ratings’ opinions and analyses do not address the suitability of any security. S&P Global Ratings does not act as a fiduciary or an investment advisor except where registered as such. While S&P Global Ratings has obtained information from sources it believes to be reliable, it does not perform an audit and undertakes no duty of due diligence or independent verification of any information it receives. Ratings and other opinions may be changed, suspended, or withdrawn at any time.”

          The US has a AA+ rating with along with a national debit that is unsustainable, an all time high! Some is going to have to pay the piper eventually. Just like CA.

          All factors must be considered before making blanket statements.

          Lastly; thankfully our forefathers had the insight to implement a system that would not permit one or two states to decide national elections.

          Surely you can see that would be wrong.

          This is America last time I looked. EVERY American has a right to vote and to be heard. MAJORITY WINS!

          Get over it.

  7. Phillip says:

    I’m all for free speech…but let’s face it…there are many in the public who cannot suscently express their views and make their point without repeating or rambling. Expand the 30 minute period to 60, maintain the 5-minute limit and keep people on topic.

  8. Lydia says:

    I see 2 themes here:
    1. Some residents want more time to present ideas, vent or applaud individuals/organizations in front of the City Council.
    2. Some residents either want to listen to #1 only, listen to business session only, or listen to both.

    In order to accommodate both the time and order of each topic, why don’t we entirely separate the business session from the ceremonial/public comment session with a fixed start time for each?

    DONE

  9. cathyreads says:

    Extending the second public comment portion at the end of the meeting to allow for additional time, rather than extending the 1st public comment time on the agenda could serve the purpose of allowing everyone an opportunity to speak, while not prolonging the business portion of the meeting.

    • EJ Moosa says:

      That might work on some issues. But for issues the City Council is voting on that evening, the residents deserve to be heard before the vote is take.

  10. Barry says:

    As I’m sure you know, the United States is a Republic, not a Democracy, and I don’t think many people are really ready to change the longest lasting form of government on the planet. No, the Constitution works. And by the way, the President won 37 of 50 states, a majority. The Cubs won four games in the World Series, but Cleveland scored more total runs in the Series. Should we declare the Indians World Series Champions?

  11. Suzi K says:

    Barry,…,we are talking about each individual’s right to have their vote counted, not baseball…..of which I am a Cubbies fan.
    The Electoral College system distorts the one-person, one-vote principle of our democracy, period!

    • N Hale says:

      With much respect, Suzi K, we are not a democracy – one vote doesn’t stand for one vote when electing the POTUS. The electoral college was established to support the union of states concept our Republic is based on.

      Representatives were elected based on a number of citizens per representative. The number has now been capped to 435 but is allocated per state based on population. A state may have less representatives than a larger state which does impact the voice that state has on votes in the House of Representatives. The electoral college allows small states to be represented in the election similar to the House of Representatives. The electoral college removes the “mob rule” effect of the mass populations of large population states which enables each state to participate and impact the election of our President.

      If the election we merely based on individual votes country wide, then California, New York, Ohio, Texas and Florida would drive the direction of the country solely and the rest of us need not vote.

      If we want to continue to enjoy our rights and freedoms as we do, it serves us all to better understand this framework, how it protects each of us and what is at stake if we declare ourselves a Democracy and not the Constitutional Republic that we are.

  12. Suzi K says:

    N Hale:

    Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 2.7 million votes as of the last count.

    If I were to vote dem in a red state or vote Repub in a blue state, my vote doesn’t count. Is that fair?

    The Electoral College was necessary when communications were poor, literacy was low, and the voters lacked information about out-of-state figures, which is definitely no longer the case.

    Every citizen’s vote should count in America, not just the votes of partisan insiders in the Electoral College.
    Kick the electoral college back to the days of yore!

    • N Hale says:

      Everything that was put in the Constitution means today what it meant back in 1789. I do understand your concerns, but each side of the isle can say the same thing election over election. At least we aren’t living under mob rule which is important to me. As the country found things the majority of the country didn’t support, it was amended. Follow the process otherwise the process is as it was defined in the Constitution.

      I respect your opinion and appreciate your openness to dialog.

    • Anonymous says:

      Legally speaking, there is no such thing as a “national popular vote”. It does not exist, other than being a total that is tallied by large multimedia conglomerates. It has absolutely no legal significance whatsoever. It’s a nothingburger. But if you want, go ahead and organize a movement to abolish the EC. Good luck getting 38 state legislatures and 2/3 of both houses of Congress to approve it.

      • EJ Moosa says:

        You are correct. The entire election process would be held differently. So while the popular vote totals are seized by the media to stimulate debate, there is no real substance there.

        If we ran this nation by popular vote, you’d see the major states get the attention, smaller states entirely ignored. California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and a few others would be the entire focus.

        Already we see a system where the two parties try to have their candidate selected before half the states have even held their primaries. They work to get candidates to resign from the race “for the good of the party” so they can start preparing for November.

        Imagine a primary system where all the largest states went first, and you will get a good idea of what the national election would be like. States like Georgia might not have any input into the process whatsoever.

  13. Editor says:

    Update:

    Council is still discussing the policy.

    In a move Against tradition and courtesy…

    During the City Council Meeting June 5th, Mayor Bodker, Cori Davenport, Jay Lin & Steve Broadbent voted AGAINST extending public comment.

    This vote impacted and cut off 3 residents from finishing their sentences, regarding the tax increases and parks design.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Clinton didn’t win the majority of legal votes. If you subtract all the illegal voters that cast ballots in the election, Trump won the majority of legitimate popular votes. There have been numerous studies performed by liberal universities that explain how the millions of illegal votes are cast due to states like California rigging the system to allow it.

  15. Creeker says:

    Compare Georgia’s economic health to California’s. http://www.usdebtclock.org/state-debt-clocks/state-of-georgia-debt-clock.html

  16. Stephanie Endres says:

    **UPDATE**

    The City Council decided to table the final decision on restricting public comment last Monday night (6/5/17) because there wasn’t a large enough consensus to support.

    The argument posed by supporters restricting public comment (free speech) was because of legal cases that have set precedent to support other governing entities of implementing public comment restrictions. But the First Amendment to the Constitution says:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    The key to me is “Congress shall make no law…”. The legislative branch of the government makes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws and the judicial branch applies the laws. Why is this important? “Congress shall make no law…” is clear so how could the court system interpret to mean anything other than “Congress shall make NO law…”? This is where I personally have an issue and it may make sense to functionally reduce the amount of time residents can “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” but the minute we accept this as fact then we have accepted the erosion of our fundament right to free speech.

    Based on principle alone, I will never support the restriction of any individual’s right to speak to the City Council as a complete body at any time! Residents should have open access to the folks that were voted in to represent them.

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