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Decorum ordinance in effect in Exeter; ACLU has First Amendment concerns

The Town of Exeter is trying to keep their meetings from getting out of hand by passing a  public decorum ordinance. (WJAR)
The Town of Exeter is trying to keep their meetings from getting out of hand by passing a public decorum ordinance. (WJAR)
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A Southern New England town is trying to keep its meetings from getting out of hand, but the ordinance it passed to do so has some questioning its legality.

This ordinance relating to public decorum was passed by the Exeter Town Council during the Sept. 3 council meeting.

The item falls under the third part of the agenda.

During a Narragansett Town Council meeting Monday night, the council discussed it as they were looking to adopt something similar.

Narragansett councilors voted against it, but the ordinance itself is raising concern with the ACLU.

Town council members in Exeter said they feel the ordinance was necessary.

They said they thought a couple meetings in the past were getting out of hand, saying one had a lot of people yelling, causing others to leave.

At another meeting, councilors said the Rhode Island State Police were called.

"It really reflects badly on the officers running the meeting and, of course, it's discouraging to people attending," said Exeter Town Council Vice President Frank DiGregorio.

Town Council President Calvin Ellis said he went to the town solicitor to see if anything could be done to keep the meetings controlled and civil.

Later, Ellis introduced the ordinance related to public decorum at town assemblies and meetings. Much of it, he said came from state law.

"My real concern was that the business of the town was disrupted," explained Ellis.

It says while meetings are in session, attendees must observe and maintain civility.

"We don't anticipate enforcement," said Ellis. "Only we want proper decorum, proper conduct to prevail, and if someone is so out of line that they try to stop the proceedings of the function or a meeting like we had last night there is no question in my mind that is inappropriate."

The ordinance goes on to say you could be barred from the meeting if you make personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or become boisterous during the meeting.

That language concerns both lawyers with the ACLU as well as another member of the town council.

"Someone could just determine if you speak loud that’s boisterous," explained Councilman Dan Patterson.

He is also concerned about enforcement.

"Is it going to be equally enforced is number one," explained Councilman Dan Patterson.

He added he didn't think it would. He also said he was concerned with the duties the town sergeant had legally.

The Rhode Island ACLU's Executive Director Steve Brown said he is concerned about what he said is vague language due to freedom of speech rights.

He also questions who the ordinance says decides what behavior falls under the description.

"We're very concerned about giving that sort of power to town council officials that will only chill people from speaking out to the concern, that what they say may end up forcing them out of the meeting," Brown explained.

Brown said he worries what will take place when an the next incident arises in the town. He is also concerned other towns are going to try to adopt similar ordinances.

"There is no question every town Council has the authority right now without an ordinance to take care of disruptive behavior. This ordinance is clearly designed to do more than that and that is where it becomes a problem under the First Amendment," said Brown.

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