SADOW: Caddo Debates Criminalizing Political Dissent

The great Caddo Parish Commission showdown never materialized and maybe cooler heads eventually will prevail on free speech issues aggravated by thin-skinned commissioners.

Last Tuesday at a Commission work session’s end, local publisher John Settle and Democrat Commissioner Steven Jackson got into a verbal altercation. Witnesses say other commissioners and parish workers had to restrain Jackson after Settle made critical remarks about him, apparently referring to the recent arrest of Jackson for impersonating a police officer, which Settle believes may be related to extracurricular amorous activities of Jackson, who also faces issuance of a domestic protective order against him.

Shortly thereafter, on behalf of Democrat Commission Pres. Roy Burrell a letter was sent to a deputy with the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office supposedly overseeing Commission security, in which he claimed commissioners were so worried about Settle’s alleged comportment at meetings that he would be banned from attending meetings henceforth. In particular, it claimed that he “has threatened Commissioners, regularly makes outbursts from his seat during the meeting, violates posted restricted area notices regularly, made comments that staff and commissioners [sic] intentionally uncomfortable, and his provocations have led to multiple physical confrontations in recent years both in and outside the chamber.”

You don’t have to be trained as lawyer as Settle was to understand how grossly unconstitutional was that order. Settle arrived at the regular meeting Thursday and sat through it with impunity, with nary a move made to suggest the letter was worth the piece of paper on which it was written.

The complaints in it easily are recognized as appropriately handled under decorum rules, presently absent from the latest version of Commission bylaws, or are within a citizen’s rights of free speech. Particularly egregious is the attitude that something is wrong with speech that makes an elected official “uncomfortable,” signaling an intent to criminalize speech that criticizes actions by commissioners.

Some commissioners hastily offered at the regular meeting in the form of two resolutions an attempt to take care of this in their own minds. One stated that “Upon adjournment of any meeting of the Caddo Parish Commission, including special meetings and work sessions, security shall immediately clear the chamber of all persons except Caddo Parish Commissioners and Caddo Parish Employees.”

That, apparently a direct response to Settle’s shouting out critiques, seems constitutionally problematic in its segregating the public from Caddo officials. A general closing of the chambers is in order after conduct of business, but citizens have the right to interact with officials in public spaces, so if one group is allowed in such a space, so must the other be.

The other also has constitutional deficiencies. It reads “Citizens of the public who attend meetings shall be seated and maintain decorum at all times before, during, and after commission meetings while in to Government or where a regular or committee meeting is being held. Citizens of the public shall not roam, solicit items of personal economic value, or loiter at any point before, during, or after any Commission meetings. Violations to this subject immediate expulsion from Commission Meetings or proceedings at the discretion of the President or subject to majority of the commission present and voting. Any member of the public found in violation of this twice can be barred from in-person attendance for a period of time to be determined by the Commission President or a majority vote of the commission present and voting.”

Solicitation as written would be enforceable, but to “roam” or “loiter” would be challengeable constitutionally for overbreadth; for example, it could apply to people making/taking cell phone calls entering and exiting. Expulsion as a penalty could work, but barring people from meetings is completely unconstitutional.

Wisely, a few members pointed out the matter’s lack of urgency and the resolutions about it required vetting through appropriate subcommittees. As both items being last-minute additions to the agenda required unanimous approval, a few votes against defeated both, with those cast by all Republicans, except John-Paul Young, joined by newly-appointed Democrat Ronald Cothran and no party Mario Chavez (Democrat Steffon Jones was absent).

But given the statements by some in the majority, these items may see the light of day in the future. Jackson before the vote whined about being “harassed,” which to his mind is having citizens accost him before or after meetings, bringing to mind the aphorism of Democrat Pres. Harry S. Truman: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Nobody has a gun pointed at Jackson making him run for and serve in office; if he finds the legitimate demands of service too much, he’s free to leave it at any time.

Instead, he whines and seeks to make himself immune from potential criticism by citizens exercising their rights to converse in public spaces. It’s unbecoming, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s something the Commission should tone down or abandon.

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