Public comments
Imagined risk no cause for alarm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

[Attached photo: Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom of Speech']

Once again, a little-known adviser to some Utah elected officials, one possessed of a runaway imagination, has suggested that the free flow of ideas and information that a democracy depends on could prove too hot to handle and so should be curtailed.

The manager of the Utah Counties Indemnity Pool, Johnnie Miller, has suggested that local governments might want to pull the plug on the open-mic portion of their meetings, lest they get sued for the ravings of one of their citizens.

The good news is that, so far, Miller's advice is only being kicked around in one municipality that we know of — by one member of the Box Elder County Commission — while legal advisers to the Salt Lake County Council and local officials in other cities and counties have set aside the warning as unwarranted and undemocratic.

If Miller's reasoning sounds sadly familiar, it is because it is all too similar to the one used by members of the staff of the Utah Legislature when the infamous HB477 sprang up at the end of its 2011 session. That was the horrid, and short-lived, enactment that was intended to rip the guts out of the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act.

The genesis of that bill was the fear that consequences that were not only unintended, but unheard-of, might rise from the fact that most records held by state and local government agencies in Utah were presumed to be open.

The spectre raised then was that embarrassing details about the personal lives of Utah citizens were likely to be spilled into the public sphere unless GRAMA were essentially turned inside out. The example given was a constituent telling his legislator about some personal experiences as a way of arguing for or against a particular piece of legislation, only to find the details of his personal life splashed across the state's front pages.

Even though there was no such example to be raised, and even though the GRAMA process already provided for that kind of personal information to be kept personal, HB477 was quickly adopted. Only to be repealed some weeks later in the wake of widespread public outrage.

Public outrage, or foolishness, is just what Miller is worried about. He sees city or county governments, and their taxpayers, dragged into expensive legal actions because some members of the public might use their time during public comment periods to unfairly attack a neighbor or go off on some other legally threatening tangent.

Risk management specialists such as Miller are, of course, paid to imagine worst-case scenarios such as this. But this is one limit that shows no respect for, or understanding of, how democratic governments work.

Governments are not responsible for the silly ideas some of their constituents may have. Shutting off one of the few forums most people have for speaking truth — or foolishness — to power is too high a price to pay to avoid the kind of lawsuit that, so far, exists only in a few fevered imaginations.