The Public’s Right to Be Heard
by Leo Morris
At the conclusion of a recent Allen County Commission meeting, the commission president became annoyed with a woman who refused to shut up when her allotted time expired under the public speaking rules. He warned her that people not following the rules risked having no public comment at all.
“Local government boards,” the newspaper article chronicling the meeting gently reminded its readers, “are not legally obligated to allow public comments at meetings.”
Too true, and a lot of Indiana government units are flirting with the idea of blessed silence at meetings, including Northwest Allen’s and other school boards. “The public” is just a polite term for a bunch of ignorant whiners and ill-informed complainers. Letting them run off at the mouth just slows things down and gums up the works.
Those inclined to complain would probably get little understanding from the Indiana General Assembly, which hammers out the details of major legislation in private meetings of the GOP super majority, letting the public see the result at the same time as the hapless Democratic mini minority.
Nor would they find a sympathetic ear in Congress, whose speaker seems proud of the fact that the public can learn what is in bills running thousands of pages only after the bills become law. Got a comment – oops, too late.
It’s the spirt of the age, isn’t it? On college campuses, professors can be fired for having the wrong opinion, and there are safe spaces where any opinion that makes any student uncomfortable is forbidden. Facebook and Twitter monitor their users for unorthodox opinions on everything from Covid to climate change and transgenderism, and even the president of the United States can be banned.
As someone who has spent a lifetime both offering and combatting opinions, who has always believed that a good, healthy argument is the surest path to the truth, I find this all more than a little distressing.
It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a1983 column in the Washington Post, who observed that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”
It seemed so clear then. Opinions were good or bad, based on the accuracy of the facts undergirding them and our evaluations of their significance, and in debating them, we discarded bits of misconception and glimpsed pieces of the truth.
Today, the line between facts and opinion is deliberately blurred by those who think they already know the truth and have the right, even the obligation, to shout down those who don’t accept it. And I wonder if those who applaud that reality have considered where we might be headed.
Moynihan, some will recall, though a Democrat and a firebrand liberal in many ways, was also a contrarian who for a time served in the administration of Richard Nixon. You remember Nixon. His appeals to the “silent majority” of Americans whose voices were never heard won him the presidency.
And it turns out he wasn’t the first. In 1919, ad executive and Republican Party supporter Bruce Barton wrote in Collier magazine of Calvin Coolidge’s presidential run: “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority had no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: he lives like them, he works like them, and understands.”
I still believe that airing all the opinions is the best way to elevate the discussion. That’s how the country got started and why we have the First Amendment, because the Founders believed that “from many voices,” truth emerged.
Do you think otherwise?
If you think Coolidge was a lousy president, and you think Richard Nixon was nothing but a crook, do you still believe ignoring a wide swatch of the American people was a good idea? How about Donald Trump? His constituents felt that the ruling elite not only refused to listen to them but held them in utter contempt.
You think they’re not still out there? Perhaps when they get a chance to speak up, they don’t follow the rules of public comment as well as they should. But they will be heard.
Sooner or later, one way or another.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]