Shout the Loudest
By Jean Godden
When I was first elected to the Seattle City Council in 2004, public hearings and comment periods were a treat. Hearing from people was a way to further educate myself on issues and an opportunity to hear from constituents about what matters to them. Thanks to thoughtful public testimony, I sometimes changed my mind on how to cast a vote.
That complete shift in voting behavior happened several times. Early in my 12 years on the council, councilmembers were debating passage of a four-foot rule between performers and patrons at strip clubs. I had originally thought the regulation was needed, even though there already was a no-contact rule.
But, after hearing from vice cops, from affected women workers and the strip clubs' rather overbearing male bosses, I concluded that the proposed rule was, once again, an attempt to tell women how to earn a living and probably a violation of their First Amendment rights.
What helped change my mind was the packed public hearing with discussion of varying viewpoints. I voted in the four-member minority. We lost. But later the issue went to the ballot and the public came to the same conclusion I had reached. Think what you may about strip clubs, the notion of cops having to enforce the regulation with four-foot-long rulers was ludicrous.
There were other occasions when I was swayed by public testimony. Once it involved strict age limits for riding battery-operated scooters within the city. (The ordinance required that riders be at least 12 years old.) It was an 11-year-old boy who testified eloquently at the council hearing who changed my mind.
Sadly, the same opportunity for civil discourse is not as prevalent today. Recent viewing of council and committee meetings shows that public hearings have taken on a completely different tenor.
Politicized groups -- individuals carrying professionally printed signs and simplistic messages -- have all but taken over hearings. Council meetings have grown increasingly raucous and polarized. Frequent attendees wave signs, obstruct views and shout down anyone who dares to disagree. While public hearings ought to be lively exchanges, there is little excuse for public forums becoming competitive shouting matches.
When he left the mayor's office last week, after his 71-day "accidental" mayorship, Tim Burgess was asked if he had any regrets -- things not accomplished during his 10 years in office. Burgess said that he regretted not being able to reverse the trend toward intolerance during public hearings.
He said, "If it continues to be who can outshout the other, who can call the worst names, what we see on the far right nationally is what we see on the far left in Seattle. It is not helpful and it is not the way to govern a city."
Burgess has it right. What's troubling is that there is extreme disregard for differing opinions. Censorship by mob is not in the best interests of city. It is particularly worrisome when some opinions go unheard because of intense partisanship.
This trend towards disrespecting opinions of others increased four years ago, perhaps not coincidentally along with the election of Kshama Sawant to the council. Leaders of Sawant's Socialist Alternative Party, among others, have assumed the role of stage-managing partisans at council hearings. Their tactics coupled with Sawant's scalding tirades -- sometimes directed at fellow councilmembers and other times at business interests -- have created divisions where there could be positive action.
Meanwhile, several frequent commenters have unleashed foul language that, in landmark cases, has been judged protected under the First Amendment. For example, courts have ruled that speakers can use the "F" word if it is used for emphasis, but not if uttered as a noun. Use of shocking language has made city council chambers less hospitable, particularly when school groups visit. What do teachers say to students who have heard speakers disparage councilmembers parentage?
The tactics used by the far left-of-left have been counter-productive, dividing the already progressive city into factions. It is as if the Third Reformed Church of State were at war with the Second Reformed Church of State. What happened to those who used to quote Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"?
It would be far better if we could talk to one another without the oppressive tyranny of the shouters. It should be possible for people of good will to hold differing opinions and to accept someone else's views. Let us build bridges together.