The rights confirmed in the First Amendment are indeed necessary if free people are to govern themselves. Nonetheless, it’s clear that First Amendment rights are not unlimited. Anyone who disrupts a court proceeding quickly learns that a judge may jail or fine him or her. Why are judges granted such power? The court cannot adequately conduct its business except in an orderly way, so free speech rights must be balanced with the right to a fair trial.
For over a year, Peekskill’s City Council meetings have been regularly disrupted by a group that may be sincere and passionate in pursuing its grievances, but has been willing neither to articulate them in any useful detail nor to offer any clear solutions. Any progress the Council makes is routinely dismissed as insufficient or irrelevant. It may not be popular to say so, but this group has the right to continue making its case.
What it does not have the right to do is defy reasonable rules of order if, in the process, they interfere with the right of others to speak or to witness the conduct of the City’s (which is to say the people’s) business. The Charter of the City of Peekskill grants mayors the broadest latitude to make and alter the rules of order for meetings of the City Council at any time. In willing to be bound by a written set of rules, Mayor Foster has actually ceded one of the mayor’s few exclusive powers. How often does an elected official do that?
Deriding the need for clear rules argues against everyone’s right (including theirs) to petition their government. Written rules mean that whoever chairs a City Council meeting in future can be held to a clear standard, and can’t change the rules nightly or weekly or person by person, as sometimes happened under the previous mayor. That some mock simple rules of order as “kindergarten rules” simply demonstrates that they haven’t yet mastered the important lessons about getting along with others that most of us learned in kindergarten