Making your harshest critics disappear

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A guy in my line of work can certainly appreciate the impulse to make your harshest, shrillest, most abusive critics disappear.

But it’s a daydream. Can’t be done. You’re better off developing a thick skin and a stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. Don’t let the (beeps) get you down.

And yet, the City of Cedar Rapids is exploring the possibility of making that daydream into a law.

There’s an ordinance in the works that would allow the city manager, in consultation with the police chief, to ban unruly, disruptive people from City Hall, or other facilities, for 30, 60 or 90 days. The city manager would refer problems to the chief, who would hold a hearing and make a recommendation. The manager would then decide whether banishment is appropriate. A banned person who shows up at say, a City Council meeting, would be charged with criminal trespass by the city attorney.

It’s being sold as a safety measure, to protect officials and employees from being threatened, or worse, by disgruntled citizens. “I hope this is never used,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who vows to use the law with “extreme caution.”

But County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden believes that this concept is likely unconstitutional. I agree.

For starters, the First Amendment is clear. Americans have a fundamental right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Banning citizens from attending open government meetings, even in the name of safety, even temporarily, flies in the face of that right. “What the city is proposing to me seems to be contrary to the democratic way of government,” Vander Sanden said. And none of the people doing the banning are elected.

Courts also tend to dislike government actions that have a potential chilling affect on free speech. Will citizens get the message that they'd better be careful what they say or they'll be meeting with the police? It's possible. And although this city manager pledges to use the law sparingly, this ordinance will remain on the books long after he's gone. How will it be used in the future?

Second, we have laws on the books to handle disruptive, violent people. The Iowa code provides the crime of disorderly conduct for anyone who “disturbs any lawful assembly or meeting of persons by conduct intended to disrupt the meeting or assembly.” Vander Sanden says disorderly conduct also fits incidents taking place after or away from public meetings.

There’s also assault. One vocal city critic is on trial next month after being accused of assaulting a city employee.

But those existing laws don’t make critics disappear for a few months, like the ordinance.

What this plan can’t make vanish is the stubborn notion in this town that the City Council is too often aloof and unresponsive. We can argue over whether that’s entirely fair or not, but this ordinance clearly doesn’t help the council’s case. For citizens who see a wall between them and City Hall, this is another brick.

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