Right to speak in question



Recent Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meetings have called basic rights of free speech into question.

A San Andreas man, Frank Ginger, says supervisors have violated his First Amendment rights by telling him he can no longer criticize a specific county employee during the public comment period at the start of each supervisor meeting.

At the meeting two weeks ago, board Chairman Paul Stein called Ginger "cowardly" and "shameless" to talk about people who aren't there to defend themselves.

"I think it's totally wrong," said Ginger, 57, who has appeared at almost every board meeting for more than a year to complain about a county code compliance officer who has told Ginger his yard should be cleaned up. Ginger claims he's being harassed. "They've had it so much their way that they have no problem saying what they want to say."

Supervisors say Ginger's statements at the meetings cross the line. Stein calls some of Ginger's comments "outlandish." Other supervisors say it's not just what Ginger says, but how often he says it.

"Just to let people come in and say the same things over and over, to me that borders on slander and it borders on defamation of character," Stein said. "I don't think I'd be doing my job if I just sat there and let them run on.

"At some point in my mind, at least when I'm chair, you certainly have the right to free speech, but you have the right to exercise that free speech within a certain guideline."

But is there such a guideline?

State law requires that all public meetings held by a governmental agency allot time for citizens to talk about any issues within that agency's authority. While officials can only vote on items listed on their meeting agendas, audience members may talk about anything not on the agenda during that public comment period, usually at the beginning of a meeting.

And California code 54954.3 states that the meeting's legislative body "shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body."

The Union Democrat
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