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PA Public Comment Law

Abuse of rules weakens access effort

Monday, January 24, 2000

The recent controversy regarding the rights of an individual to be heard at a meeting of the Fayette County commissioners raises some interesting questions.

As an example, if 30 people attend a commissioners' meeting, do all 30 have the right to shout questions to the commissioners at any time during the meeting?

If one person claims to have that constitutional right, then shouldn't that privilege extend to everyone in attendance?

If there is no order, no rules to follow regarding public comment to the commissioners, then it's every man for himself. The voices of those who can shout the loudest will be the only ones heard.

If one person refuses to confine his or her remarks to the three-minute time period set by the commissioners, what about others in the audience?

Any person who believes the time limit rules are unconstitutional has a right to file a civil suit in the courts. If the courts agree that the time limit is illegal, the rules will be changed.

When considering an individual's right to free speech, a person can offer his or her opinions on almost any topic at a public forum. There are limits, however. When slanderous or libelous statements are made lawsuits against individuals can be filed.

To contend that anyone can jump up anytime at a meeting of the county commissioners to interject a comment is illogical. Can you interrupt the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives proceedings in such a manner?

Political activists have, of course, throughout the history of the nation used civil disobedience as a tactic to get laws changed or to protest government action, such as the war in Vietnam when mass demonstrations occurred.

If an individual believes the law supports his or her case, and they must be willing to spend a few hours behind bars or pay a fine for that belief.

The First Amendment right to a free press does not mean the press can publish or broadcast anything about anybody. If you violate the libel laws, you can be sued.

State governments, police, Congress, the courts and various other agencies have restricted press access to public documents for a variety of reasons.

The state has adopted laws protecting the public's right to speak at a public agency's meeting. Those laws require a public board or council to allow citizens time to voice their opinions on agenda items.

A citizen also is permitted to call to a board's attention during a meeting if a new item is added to the agenda without allowing public comment on that item.

Newspapers in Pennsylvania have been at the forefront in the battle for public access to board meetings.

We have had our own personal tussles with various boards over such issues, including a confrontation with the Fayette County Housing Authority board a few years ago to ban videocameras.

Reporters have been cited for contempt of court in cases when they refused to obey a judge's order to identify a confidential source. They spent some time behind bars as a result.

However, those who insist they have a right to interrupt a public meeting at any time for any reason, or to just interject their personal opinion, in the name of free speech only make it more difficult for others to pursue legitimate complaints involving public access to government meetings or records.

Instead of adding a voice in the campaign for public access, such behavior only weakens the process.

Calmer voices speak louder than shouting

January 21, 2000

Brian Lutes is correct about one thing: he, like every other American, has the right to speak on topics those in government might not want to hear.

But he doesn't have the right to disrupt public meetings, call others names or act belligerent.

Lutes, a regular critic of the Fayette County commissioners (a post he unsuccessfully tried to gain), resorted to name-calling, specifically saying Commissioner Sean Cavanagh is a liar. That he didn't break out in a chant of "liar, liar, you're pants are on fire," leaves room to believe that he can rise above childishness.

But Lutes was wrong, launching into a tirade, to protect his "free speech" at last week's commissioner meeting.

Of course, he wasn't the only one taking that tact. Another commissioner-wannabe, Don Defino, also let his remarks slip from public business to alleging Commissioner Vincent Vicites will become flea-infested by sleeping with dogs.

What's next? An allegation that someone's mother wears Army boots?

Lutes and Defino were upset because the new sheriff, Gary Brownfield, informed the gathering that those who become unruly will face charges of disorderly conduct. That's a charge that applies to anyone who uses obscene language or engages in tumultuous behavior in a public place. In other words, it's a crime to disrupt public meetings and throw tempter tantrums.

Lutes and Defino have often made good points and have brought out matters that deserve public debate. The commissioners have been accused of many things, even fighting among themselves, but silencing the voices of a critical public is not one of them.

Regular and agenda-setting meetings provide periods for members of the public to speak. It's a fairly liberal policy in that speakers aren't limited to discussing just the matters at hand.

The commissioners have the right to set the form of the meetings. They have the right to set a time limit for each person to speak. The current three-minutes per speaker might sound short, but in reality points can be made in that time frame even on topics that get one's blood boiling.

It's not Lutes' speech Brownfield wanted to stifle. Rather the sheriff was trying to reign in the actions of those who have turned public venues into three-ring circuses.

If Lutes, a former police officer, wants to press his point, engage in civil disobedience and violate the law then he should be prepared to face the consequences.

It shouldn't take a uniformed presence or a sheriff to caution an audience to have manners and treat others with the same respect they expect in return.

Veteran commissioners Victes and Cavanagh have gotten better over the years of listening to complaints from members of the public without throwing barbs back that tend only to fuel fires.

They could do a better job of providing reasoned answers or actions on matters that are repeatedly brought up.

But the public participants at the commissioners' meetings also need to calm down and engage in speech that persuades rather than incites.


The editor of the Herald-Standard is Michael Ellis

January 25, 2000

Dear Editor:
I’m appalled at the Herald-Standard editorial’s diatribe in “Calmer voices speak louder than shouting.”

The remarks show the absence of a reading of the history of the foundation of this nation upon a raucous uprising by those referred to even back then as trouble-makers. Freedom fighters surely didn’t call King George III a great guy in public and included Samuel Adams, the radical known for initiating the Committee of Correspondence letter writing campaign between New England towns, “to keep the flame of liberty burning by calling attention to ways in which the British were taking away the rights of colonists." Think Sam didn’t call names?

No citizen should fear arrest for calling an elected official a name during their public comment time-period at a Fayette County board of commissioners‘ meeting. Chairman Vicites and Sheriff Brownfield issued a warning that anyone name-calling (whether during their allotted public comment period or out of turn) would be subject to arrest. They said this separately from the warning that a citizen would be subject to arrest for making threats. This fear-tactic of intimidation of the public by the strong arm of the local government should be condemned and repudiated, not encouraged.

While the editorial highlights the brow-raising remarks of two private citizens, it ignores the former belligerent behavior of Commissioner Sean Cavanagh which is apparently on-hold for a time so close to his campaign for re-election effort.

While the editorial chastises Don Defino for his idiom (sleep with dogs, get fleas), and berates Brian Lutes for calling Commissioner Cavanagh a liar, ignored are the intimidating, retaliatory, and dictatorial tactics of the elected official Cavanagh against any appointed authority or agency board members who would dare to disagree with him or question his board votes.

What’s next? We’ve seen what’s happened before.

To remind the Herald-Standard, it is Commissioner Cavanagh who within the public’s hearing during a past commissioners’ meeting called Commissioner Vincent Vicites an obscene name, and for his first term in office in public called private citizens names as well (list available upon request).

Cavanagh, in the waning moments of his 1999 election campaign, along with running-mate David Lohr, championed having business meetings in the evening and who reneged on that promise by failing to make such a motion when faced with the opportunity 48-hours after being sworn into a second term of office

Cavanagh has made statements of retaliation against board appointees who disagree with him or contrarily remark about his vote on the issues.

If it is anyone the Herald-Standard should be upset with, it is Cavanagh.

If an elected official believes a citizen has slandered him or her, the official can, as we the public are often told to do, sue. The threat of arrest for name-calling during a citizen’s allotted time-period should be cast out as an abuse of political power that is abhorrent to all.

Citizens should be aware also of their rights under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law.

The public must be afforded the opportunity to comment on items already on the agenda for the business meeting, added to the agenda, or altered during the regular meeting.

DELINDA YOUNG founder Dare Inquire Representatives Truth


The following was omitted from the Herald-Standard letter.

Under Section 710.1 Rule (c) of the Act: Any person has the right to raise an objection at any time to a perceived violation of this act at any meeting of a board, or council, of a political subdivision or an authority created by a political subdivision.

The county commissioners have been asked in the past to take notice of these provisions, and to consider such an Objection, when clearly stated to them in an orderly manner, protected by the commissioners as a right of the citizen. At the time of the Objection, the commissioners should have their solicitor address the Objection either immediately, or later in an opinion.

(Pennsylvania Sunshine Act 1986, July 3, P.L. 388, No. 84. Amended SB 254 P.N. 2218, October 6, 1998.)


Brian Lutes was the subject of an article published Friday, Jan.14 in the Herald-Standard, "Lutes tests sheriff's rules," written by Paul Sunyak.

January 23, 2000

Speaking out of turn is protected
Dear Editor:
I must object to your headline story, ``Lutes tests sheriff's rules," on Friday, Jan.14.

Let me make it clear that I am in no way criticizing (staff writer) Paul Sunyak. He has proven himself to be an excellent reporter and I shudder to think what we would not know if not for his reporting.

That being said, the story I referred to, at least the headline, was deceptive. No one tested the sheriff or disrespected him in any way. Nor did anyone commit the crimes of disorderly comment or disrupting a public meeting.

I did tell the sheriff during my three minutes of comment time that I resented him ``warning" people that he would arrest them for speaking out from the audience when it was not their turn.

I also referred the sheriff and the commissioners to a number of court cases and legal quotes about just this situation, including Commonwealth vs. Jarboe, where the court held that for there to be disorderly conduct, there must be a physically, not emotionally, offensive condition. The contents of a person's speech can be regulated only on the basis of imminent danger or of grave substantial evil.

Commonwealth vs. Gowan: Expressing dissatisfaction with status quo are constitutionally protected exercises of free speech. When engaged in a constitutionally protected activity of the fundamental nature of free speech, we must exercise restraint in prohibiting the activity lest we destroy the right. Mere annoyance to the public is not sufficient to establish a conviction for disorderly conduct.

Commonwealth vs. Gilbert: Mens Rea (guilty mind). Requirement of disorderly conduct demands proof that the defendant by his actions intentionally or recklessly created a risk or caused public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. Conduct that is uncivil, annoying, or frustrating, intemperate, unreasonable or even unjustified is not tantamount to disorderly conduct. This crime (disorderly conduct) is not intended as a catchall for every act which annoys or disturbs people. It is not to be used as a dragnet for all irritations which breed in the community.

This information did not make it into the article. Why?

The people's right to redress grievances with their government is protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution and further bolstered by the above court decisions. Our elected officials need to understand this.

It is clear that the commissioners would rather the people shut up than recognize the constitution and court decisions that protect these God-given rights for all of us. People speaking out from the audience, even when it is technically not their turn, is not a crime. It is a protected right.

Brian K. Lutes North Union Township

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