MCLU challenges Falmouth council's proposed rule changes

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FALMOUTH — The Maine Civil Liberties Union is challenging a Town Council resolution passed last week in response to “abusive, bullying and threatening” language directed at councilors.

In a May 12 letter to the council, the MCLU said the resolution and proposed council rule changes will restrict free speech.

The exact wording of the rule changes has not yet been determined and Town Manager Nathan Poore said three versions of the changes are currently being reviewed by the town attorney.

The council will review the drafts and the attorney’s recommendation at its May 24 meeting.

“All we did was condemn what has been said,” Councilor Bonny Rodden said. “We didn’t restrict speech.”

Rodden, a former journalist and self-proclaimed free-speech activist, read a letter addressed to her from resident Michael Doyle during the May 10 meeting. Doyle’s letter mentioned Rodden’s family and her role as a wife and mother, and told her to withdraw from the election or he would bring his “considerable skill set and intellect to bear against” her.

All of the councilors spoke out against the language in the letter, with some calling it “wholly inappropriate” and “completely reprehensible.”

Council Chairwoman Cathy Breen also read a list of adjectives, including “demented,” “cowardly”and “stunningly inept,” which Doyle had used in e-mails and public comments to describe Breen or her actions.

“I think the public deserves as much information as possible to make its judgments,” Rodden said.

The proposed rule changes discussed at last week would potentially prohibit abusive or bullying language, personal attacks, name-calling and threats by speakers during the public comment period of council meetings.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU, said the council could be more specific in its language to avoid violating a citizen’s right to free speech.

“Maine law already prohibits harassment,” Bellows said. “If an individual feels they are being harassed, that is a matter for law enforcement.”

Neither the town nor Rodden has sought charges of harassment against Doyle, despite consultations with the town attorney, police chief and attorney general on the subject. The town has spent $1,000 for six hours of legal advice on the matter, Assistant Town Manager Amy Lamontagne said.

Bellows said she believes the council’s motivation is well intentioned, but emphasized that the MCLU strongly urges the councilors to reject the amendments and examine well-established precedent to draft rule changes that do not restrict First Amendment rights.

“In crafting any legislation that might have unintended consequences, we encourage them to conduct very careful review of precedent. There are materials available that could provide guidance,” Bellows said.

Unlike the proposed rule changes, the resolution is not an enforceable regulation of citizens’ conduct or speech during meetings or in correspondence.

Rodden said the council was merely exercising its own rights when it unanimously supported the resolution last week.

“We, as a council, have the right to free speech as well,” she said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]