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Editorial: Free speech includes criticism

We were glad to see a recent decision by a U.S. District Court judge that stopped local officials in New Mexico from banning residents from saying anything negative at council meetings.

Judge James O. Browning issued an injunction finding that the village of Ruidoso’s policy barring speakers from being critical is “an unconstitutional burden on free speech.”

The village, located in the Sierra Blanca mountains southeast of Albuquerque, is one several that make up a small, rural tourist destination. The council had instituted rules saying that a speaker at a meeting could praise personnel, staff or the village council, or could make a neutral comment, but couldn’t voice any criticism.

Greg Williams, of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the public has an interest in having meetings run in an orderly fashion but said Browning’s opinion shows that “a policy that says you can’t be critical is improper.”

“You can block topics, but not viewpoints, and negative is a viewpoint,” Williams said. “From here on out, they can’t enforce it.”

Interestingly, the ruling is the second federal opinion in New Mexico this year regarding limiting speech at public meetings. In late March, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo ruled against the Albuquerque Public Schools board’s decision to expel Charles “Ched” MacQuigg, a frequent speaker who was extolling the benefits of a particular program, but who frequently interrupted proceedings and once even wore an elephant mask during a meeting.

Obviously, there have to be limits on public participation in governmental meetings, and they can be limited to certain portions of a published agenda. And profanity or threats can be prohibited.

But censoring the nature of the comments goes beyond what is reasonable — especially when officials attempt to prevent any public criticism of their actions.

Americans once fought a war — the Revolutionary War — over attempts to limit their participation in their own affairs.

That’s a lesson we should not have to relearn in 2014.

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