Clampdowns at public hearings spark controversy about civil discourse

Published: Mar. 20, 2023 at 8:51 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 20, 2023 at 9:08 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) -Civil discourse is just not as civil as it used to be. When it comes to calling to the audience at city or county board meetings or testifying about a bill at the state Capitol, lawmakers ask for civility, but it appears few are listening.

A woman in Pima County was barred from attending meetings for 90 days after she made personal and slanderous attacks, calling a Democrat on the board a pedophile with no substantiation. She had been warned twice before.

A man who had testified at the state Capitol in Phoenix was barred from attending committee hearings because he said something a Republican on the committee didn’t like.

“I was speaking about the bill and how I believe it’s founded in conspiracy theories that are not true, and for whatever reason, he took personal offense to it,” said Ben Scheel, CEO of Opportunity Arizona.

Scheel brought up the great replacement theory which caused GOP Representative Alexander Kolodin to accuse Scheel of calling him a white supremacist, shouting him down.

When Scheel tried to speak at a meeting a week later, he was told he was not welcome and security ushered him out.

Other committee chairs, such as Elections Committee Chair Wendy Rogers, have warned against using the term “conspiracy theory” saying it will not be allowed in committee meetings.

That has prompted 24 organizations, including the Sierra Club and Common Cause to write a letter to House Leader Ben Toma asking him “to address the bullying, angry and intimidating behavior of some lawmakers.”

Scheel said the actions of committee chairs and members have a chilling effect, saying he knows several people who won’t testify before a committee because of the fear of ridicule and hostility.

“It really censors and takes away an individual’s freedom of speech,” he said. “It’s a trend that these legislators are increasingly unwilling to hear from the public.”

In Pima County, District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy has retained outside counsel to determine whether there were free speech violations when the woman was banned for 90 days. “I don’t know of anybody who has been barred from this chamber,” Christy said, saying it was the supervisor who precipitated the issue when he said people who don’t get vaccinated are akin to murderers.

The outside counsel’s report said the board “acted unlawfully.”

But the county attorney’s office disagrees.

“The regulations of the board allow a person which is making personal and slanderous remarks to be removed,” said board attorney Sam Brown. “It permits a person who makes personal and slanderous remarks to be barred.”

The county will discuss the issue at its regular meeting on 3.21/2023.