It’s impossible to exercise a right you don’t know you have.
But knowing that you have a right doesn’t give you permission to exercise it with impunity and without regard to the rights of others.
That’s why it’s important for every American citizen to become familiar with the Constitution and understand the rights — and the limitations to those rights — it affords each of us.
Last week, Anniston resident Ralph Bradford was escorted from the City Council chambers after he ignored the three-minute limit to speaking opportunity during the public comments portion of the meeting.
It had become routine for Bradford to abuse his turn at the podium, arguing extensively at every meeting for months that Anniston’s council-manager form of government is illegal because it was not precleared by the Justice Department under the 19xx desegregation court order.
Last week, after repeated pleas by Mayor Jack Draper for Bradford to end his presentation, police Chief Shane Denham and Capt. Nick Bowles were signaled to escort Bradford from the podium and out of the building.
It was about time.
Councilman Ben Little can be seen in The Anniston Star’s Facebook Live video objecting to Bradford’s removal, pointing to his First Amendment rights.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Little said, rising from his seat and waving his arms as Bradford was being escorted out. “The man has free speech. He only had a few minutes. This is the racist stuff I’m talking about. When the white folks stood up there and talked, you let them go over.”
(Bradford and Little are black. Draper is white.)
Contrary to Little’s claim, a digital clock that was set at three minutes for each speaker was visible for the entire audience, and none of the other speakers violated the time limit during the public comments.
Regardless, Bradford, among others, has so frequently abused the time limit that meetings that should have lasted an hour or two have been stretched to three and sometimes four hours.
City Manager Jay Johnson told a reporter that a recent meeting lasted four hours, with the public comments portion taking as much time as the rest of the meeting.
The three-minute time limit has long been in place but almost never enforced and often abused. The council in its work session last week again discussed enforcing the time limit and moving the public comments to the end of the meeting after all other business has been addressed.
This Editorial Board supports both.
Misunderstanding the right to free speech is a common issue. When The Star deletes readers’ inappropriate comments from its Facebook page, those readers often question being censured, pointing to their freedom of speech. You have the right to post whatever you’d like on your Facebook page — not on someone else’s page.
The purpose of the free speech right guaranteed by the First Amendment is to prevent American citizens from being prosecuted or jailed for speaking out against or criticizing their own government. The First Amendment, however, doesn’t guarantee a forum for such protests or grievances. In fact, some public bodies have no designated time for public comments during formal meetings.
While we all have the right to voice our concerns and criticisms of our government — or about pretty much anything for that matter — others have the right not to be forced to listen. Depending on who’s speaking, maybe that freedom can be filed under “the pursuit of happiness.”