This is not about free speech

Municipal officials cannot do their jobs if anyone can blurt out anything at any time

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I am writing in response to Point Park University professor Steve Hallock's guest column in the Dec. 29 Post Gazette ("Let the Sunshine In"), in which he criticized the Allegheny County district attorney for pursuing misdemeanor charges against a woman who was arrested for disrupting a Blawnox borough meeting. He accused the district attorney of a "disturbing attempt to silence constitutionally protected free speech" and praised the decision of Common Pleas Judge Gerald Bigley to throw out the prosecution, a decision which has been appealed.

I wonder what Judge Bigley would do if he were holding court and someone kept blurting out questions or comments. My guess is Judge Bigley would order the person to stop, and if he or she did not, he would hold the person in contempt and have him or her removed from his courtroom. I know courts do not fall under the state Sunshine Act but maybe they should. After all, they are funded with taxpayer dollars and judges are elected officials.

I also wonder what Mr. Hallock would do if he was lecturing in his classroom and one of his students kept blurting out questions or comments. I am sure Mr. Hallock would ask the student to stop and if the student refused, he or she would be removed from the classroom. I know a belligerent outburst during a lecture in a class does not fall under the Sunshine Act, but how about "free speech"?

I wonder how Judge Bigley and Mr. Hallock would react if the person or authority removing the belligerent person from his courtroom or classroom told the belligerent person not to cause more problems and the belligerent person responded with the f-bomb, followed by "You can't tell me what to do, [expletive deleted]."

Mr. Hallock, this case is being appealed by the district attorney because Judge Bigley did not do his job. He probably didn't take the time to read the transcript of the case. He refused to allow testimony and refused to listen to an actual tape recording of the incident.

Mr. Hallock, I suggest that you completely research a subject before you write an article about it instead of relying on a single newspaper article.

Peggy Albright would not have been escorted out of the Blawnox council meeting and arrested if she would have willingly left the meeting when a police officer asked her to do so. Instead, she started screaming that she would have to be carried from the meeting because she had the right to speak any time she wanted to.

She would not have been handcuffed in the police station if she had not become very belligerent and if the police officer had not felt his safety was threatened. I believe the police officer treated her fairly. After he got some information from her (even though she refused to give it at first), he released her and asked her not to cause more problems. As I stated, her response was to curse at the officer and to tell him, "You can't tell me what to do, [expletive deleted]." Mr. Hallock, even an elementary-school student would not respond to a police officer in this manner.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Albright and two allies (one who lives in O'Hara and the other in Fox Chapel) think they should be able to blurt out comments and questions on any subject at any time during a council agenda meeting or a regular council meeting. I would love to see them try this at an O'Hara or Fox Chapel council meeting.

The real issue raised by this incident is the rights of every other resident of Blawnox. As long as Mrs. Albright and her friends disrupt Blawnox council meetings, the elected officials of Blawnox will not have the ability to govern. The question is, when do the rights of the other residents of Blawnox prevail?

The district attorney should be applauded for his stance in this matter. The district attorney seems determined to allow elected officials to govern. He and his staff are trying to stop this problem from occurring not only in Blawnox but also in the other 129 municipalities in Allegheny County.

The Sunshine Act and freedom of speech do not give Mrs. Albright and her friends the right to disrupt municipal council meetings, and judges and college professors should not rule or comment on a subject until they research it and have all the facts.

Every elected official in Allegheny County should support the district attorney in his appeal because the Superior Court decision will either allow elected officials to govern or not allow them to govern. Allowing those who attend council meetings to be unruly and to blurt out questions or comments at any time cannot be allowed.

Public comments at appropriate times are fine, providing they are meant to be constructive, not destructive.

Tom Smith has been mayor of Blawnox for 37 years and attended the council meeting in question ( ).


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