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Council gets lesson in free speech

March 13, 2014 - 5:40am

You might not like what they have to say, but you have to let them say it.

That’s the gist of a memo sent out last week to County Council members following an incident at the Feb. 19 council meeting where a testifier was cut off when he attempted to criticize Monsanto Corp. and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi for supporting genetically modified crops.

The March 7 memo, signed by County Clerk Stewart Maeda and Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, clarifies for council members that testifiers are allowed to speak within their time limit, but they may be warned if they are using profanity or screaming or yelling while testifying. If a warning is not heeded, the testifiers can then be cut off, the memo states.

“This is a reminder that the public has a right to criticize specific council member(s), so long as the public testimony is related to an agenda item,” the memo says. “A good rule to remember is this: ‘We should not regulate the content of speech, but we may regulate the manner of speech.’”

Testifiers and council members are usually admonished to address the chairman, not individual members.

The memo was requested by Vice Chairwoman Karen Eoff, who was chairing the meeting where, bowing to pressure from other council members, she interrupted, then cut off testifier Jim Albertini before his three minutes were up. Eoff said Wednesday that some of the confusion was caused by a poor videoconference link between Hilo, where Albertini was testifying, and Kailua-Kona, where the council members were holding their meeting.

Albertini, an activist and regular testifier, had singled out Onishi for a T-shirt bearing Onishi’s photo and the inscription, “M&M — Monsanto &me.” Onishi, who was the lone council member at the Hilo site, accepted the T-shirt with no expression after Albertini’s testimony. He did not return a telephone call by press time Wednesday.

“Madam chairperson, for the GMO supporters and promoters I have a proposal: Put your mouth where your money is. Step forward. Demonstrate your corporate loyalty with patriotic vigor. Volunteer yourself and your family members to Monsanto to be genetically engineered,” Albertini said in testimony.

Eoff cut him off with a warning shortly thereafter. When Albertini mentioned Onishi again, Eoff ended his testimony, reminding testifiers they were to address her as chairwoman and not other council members.

The issue arose again a few minutes later, when a testifier mentioned specific council members. At that point, Eoff called for a recess to consult with Ashida. Following the conversation, Eoff let the testifier continue, with an admonition that other council members may be mentioned, but testifiers should remember to be “courteous and professional.”

Albertini complained to the Clerk’s Office, saying his civil rights had been violated.

Ashida, who was at the meeting with Eoff, said Wednesday that Eoff was responding to several council members who were “visibly motioning to Karen to cut him off.”

Eoff, who has been chagrined about the whole episode, had called Albertini the next day and apologized, and reiterated that the situation had been exacerbated by the fact that she and Albertini weren’t in the same room. She said she thought perhaps he’d said something that she didn’t hear.

“I was trying to err on the side of caution after some council members had concerns,” Eoff said.

Several government watchers called it ironic that Eoff, a former frequent testifier herself who encourages public comment, found herself in this situation.

Eoff agreed. She said she was more likely to let people talk longer than allotted rather than cut them off prematurely.

“I totally believe in citizens’ participation in the public hearing process. … This is ironic,” Eoff said. “I am definitely there to listen to the testimony. I always feel that people who have come out and made the effort deserve to be able to finish their thought.”

Albertini said he had been trying to be satirical in his testimony.

“I’m glad free speech rights will be clarified, but it’s a sad fact that a citizen’s right to criticize council members has to be clarified. We are supposed to be living in a democracy,” he said. “I have never heard a council member object when they are named and praised in council testimony, so why should they object when they are named and criticized? The main thing is, we try to be civil to one another.”

Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, a longtime councilman in his last year, said he’s heard his share of negative testimony over the years, but he believes a person’s right to testify must come first. If anything, testifiers seem to target council members for pointed criticism less this term than they did during the last few terms, when the council was more divided, he said.