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St. Lawrence County Bulletin Boards Policy


Statement of Barrie Gewanter to St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators April 14, 2008 — I am here to speak to you one more time as a representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union. I will briefly address three issues: 1. There has been a lot of media coverage of the discussions and actions of this Legislature since we sent you our March 7th letter concerning a censorship issue. Unfortunately, much of the spin in regional media and in this body has indicated that this issue was about the employees in the county DSS office. In fact, the NYCLU’s concerns had nothing to do with the hardworking staff of this or any other county department. We contacted this county because of actions taken by two county administrators, actions that resulted in censorship. We asked that the county create a procedure that would both protect the free speech of persons posting materials on county bulletin boards and limit the discretion of county administrators who may be called upon to make decisions about such materials. Last week you created such a procedure. 2. The soundness of this procedure will depend largely on how it is applied on a case-by-case basis. However, in the legislative process, you inserted ambiguity to the procedure by adding vague wording about “profanity” that needs to be clarified. The word “profane” can have many meanings – in common speech and in legal terms. It could refer to cursing or swear words, which may clearly be inappropriate for materials on public bulletin boards. But it could also refer to words or statements that some would consider rude, annoying, offensive, derogatory, insulting, sexual or vulgar. The term “profane” can also be used to refer to statements that some consider irreverent or offensive to one’s religion. We object to the addition of such vague wording to the bulletin board policy, but having added it, we ask that this body, and the county attorney and county administrator, go on record to explain how the term “profane” will be defined and applied in respect to this policy. I ask this so that the public at large can have confidence that neither the current nor future officials in this county will utilize the vagueness of this term to justify censorship. As I stated to the media, you are in “constitutionally dangerous territory.” I ask that you officially define the boundaries of this territory. I know that the LGBT community advocates, who originally brought concerns about the movie poster to our attention, are particularly concerned that the word “profane” will be used to justify removal of materials that describe or celebrate their lives. I hope that you can put their concerns to rest by stating clearly, on the record, that such materials will be considered on an equal basis to any other posting, and that the term “profane” will not be applied to single out LGBT materials that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. 3. Last week, this body suspended the rules to consider a new and separate resolution dealing with employee training – a resolution that no one had seen prior to your public session. The public had no opportunity to comment on the language in this new resolution before it was adopted. Tonight you have an opportunity to reconsider this separate resolution – after consideration of public opinion about its content. I ask that you amend this resolution tonight to ensure that diversity training is explicitly listed as one of the trainings that the county shall provide to its employees, not annually per se, but on a regular and predictable basis. This would add significantly to the confidence of residents and consumers of public services that this county is firmly committed to promoting sensitivity, tolerance and equal treatment for persons in all categories covered under New York State Human Rights Law, including, but not limited to, persons who may identify as LGBT.
NYCLU Concerned About Wording Of New St. Lawrence County Policy For Bulletin Boards In County Buildings April 8, 2008 – The New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York affiliate of the ACLU, remains concerned about the wording of a policy approved by the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators on Monday. The policy was originally aimed to prevent government censorship of community event fliers and announcements posted on public bulletin boards by requiring consultation with the county attorney and county administrator before any such materials are removed. However, new wording added to the policy Monday could allow county officials to remove materials based on individual and subjective judgments. The NYCLU called for a policy to prevent censorship of community fliers and announcements on bulletin boards in St. Lawrence County office buildings in March, after a poster advertising a regional lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) film festival was removed from a bulletin board at the county Department of Social Services because employees objected to its content. The NYCLU has since met with county officials and legislators to encourage the creation of a new policy that would prevent county officials from engaging in censorship based on subjective judgments about the content of posted materials. A draft policy, endorsed by a legislative committee on March 24, was amended during a lengthy debate in Monday’s board meeting. Rather than preserving a clearly objective standard, legislators chose to add wording that may allow materials to be removed based on a judgment that they are “profane.” This raises questions as to how county officials will interpret materials that may be socially controversial or offensive to some while perfectly acceptable to others. “This is constitutionally dangerous territory,” said Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU’s Central New York Chapter. “Who decides what constitutes profanity? This wording in the new policy opens the door to further viewpoint-based censorship and endangers county residents’ First Amendment right to free speech.” The fact that in January, a high-level county official insisted that the description of every movie in the film festival poster be covered with white out and that a description of two men falling in “love at first sight” was “sexually suggestive,” raises legitimate concerns that this policy may be used to bar content with LGBT themes. The draft policy also would have required annual diversity training for county staff. Legislators separated this requirement from the bulletin board policy approved Monday, apparently to avoid creating the appearance that social services staff are uncomfortable with LGBT individuals. Unfortunately, the original mandate for such training beyond this year was severely diluted in a new resolution introduced and passed by the Legislature on Monday night under a suspension of the normal rules for considering such a resolution. “The incident concerning the film festival flier clearly showed a need for diversity training.” Gewanter said. “And while some training is promised for this year, the decision to remove a mandate for diversity training is a disservice to the community because there is no assurance that training will continue in the future.” “The NYCLU considers the community’s debate on First Amendment rights and diversity issues a positive step for St. Lawrence County,” Gewanter added. “If the new bulletin boards policy is constitutionally enforced and diversity training begins taking place, we consider this a victory.” Gewanter added that the NYCLU will monitor the application of the policy in the future, and specifically in reference to publicity for LGBT community events.
Statement of Barrie Gewanter to St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators April 7, 2008 — I again address you as a representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the state affiliate of the ACLU. I urge you to adopt the resolution put forward by legislators Cobb and FitzRandolph, and to do so with the components of the current resolution intact. From our previous letter and my statements in this room on March 21st and 24th, you know that we are concerned about the lack of an official policy to prevent the censorship of community announcements and event fliers on the bulletin boards in county buildings. The procedure laid out in the “resolved” section of this resolution seems well-aimed to prevent county officials from reacting to complaints from employees or members of the public by removing such materials, something that I have referred to as enabling a heckler’s veto. This procedure should prevent knee-jerk reactions to remove materials without due consideration for First Amendment implications of free speech in a public forum. We are pleased that this procedure requires consultation with the county attorney before action is taken. However, I would like to caution the legislators present that the final clauses that you chose to add to the language describing this procedure should not be interpreted or used by members of the legislature to bypass the obligation of all county officials, elected and appointed, to stay within the constitutional limits of their authority. It is my hope that the discussion of free speech that has occurred here in the last month will help you to choose not to use the ability to overrule or arbitrate to facilitate another action that results of censorship. It is my impression from listening to the voices of many in county government here that there was little intention to engage in censorship here. The result however was a silencing of the information intended to be conveyed by a film festival poster with LGBT themes. So, the result was indeed censorship. The fact that this censorship involved speech about the lives of people who are LGBT leaves a strong impression, whether intended or not, that there could be a hostile or intolerant atmosphere for employees or members of the public speaking services in St. Lawrence County government offices. Whether intended or not, this fact calls for steps to be taken to counter the lasting impression that LGBT persons may not be welcome here on an equal basis with other county residents. It is for this reason that I strongly urge you to retain the section of this resolution that mandates diversity training for county staff on a regular and predictable schedule. Such training would not be focused on the needs of any one minority group, but would promote sensitivity and tolerance towards persons from all categories covered under New York State Human Rights Law. I suggest that such a proactive and progressive step would be of great value to the county, generally, and in light of recent events. But it is especially important to take the time and effort to convey a strong internal and external message that, in fact, all are welcome here.

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