In the debate over our school board’s proposal to regulate how members of the public express themselves at board meetings, some board members argued that the policy is just an attempt to establish a particular culture of respect and decorum. I do think the board wants to enforce a particular culture, but that’s one reason I think the policy is a bad idea.
Not everyone shares the board majority’s view about what is appropriate decorum. There are all kinds of cultures of public participation out there, even in Iowa City. Some cultures (and some individuals) are freer with the “amens” and the audible expressions of disapproval. In some cultures, people are more comfortable with using strong language, or expressing strong emotion, when speaking publicly. That is not a reason to treat those cultures as somehow “wrong” or “impolite” or “threatening.”
Yes, there is a point at which the speakers and the audience could prevent the board from conducting business or could drown out other speakers. The proposed policy, though, goes way beyond what is necessary to prevent those problems. Some degree of audible audience reaction is to be expected at any public meeting; a board that wants to be inclusive should put up with it. It’s not for the board to tell the public what kind of culture to have.
There’s another “culture” at work here, too: the culture of bureaucracy and the establishment, which naturally values “positivity” because it favors the status quo. Loud applause for the school district’s accomplishments has never provoked any regulation. Loud booing, however, would almost certainly violate the policy’s requirement of “respect and decorum.” If that isn’t viewpoint discrimination, I don’t know what is.