Is Moderator Widmer really fair? I asked the experts.

Our longtime Town Moderator Mike Widmer is facing his first challenge for office in 16 years. His argument for re-election: ‘I’m fair and run a fair Town Meeting.’ But does he? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the past few months, ever since Moderator Widmer shouted me down and declared me “out of order” for offering (faint) criticism of our Town’s leadership as I spoke in favor of a school budget amendment in our June, 2023 Town Meeting.

Its a question I think the voters of Belmont need an answer to as they consider whether to vote to re-elect Mr. Widmer as Moderator. To put the question to rest, I reached out to the experts: the ACLU of Massachusetts, for their opinion on that incident and – specifically – whether Moderator Widmer crossed a line when he used his position to censor my criticism of the Warrant Committee and Select Board. Their response? ‘He may have.’

Criticism: out of order?!?

Here’s the scoop: back in June 2023 Town Meeting was considering a proposed budget amendment that would direct some $250,000 additional dollars from our Town’s free cash to the Belmont Public Schools, earmarked for special education. Despite the relatively small sum, it was a contentious issue with Belmont’s political establishment (the Select Board, the Warrant Committee) resolutely opposed, and the School Committee itself split on the issue. Ultimately, the amendment was voted down by Town Meeting, but not before a long and contentious debate. Hey – democracy right?!

In this clip from the June 5, 2023 Belmont Town Meeting, Moderator Widmer declares impugning the motives of elected officials ‘out of order’ and disallowed speech -an example of ‘viewpoint discrimination’ by elected officials that state and federal courts have declared illegal.

In the midst of that debate, I rose to speak in favor of the amendment. My message to Town Meeting was pretty straight forward: that we are not a rubber stamp for the Town’s leadership. We are Belmont’s legislature, and that means that we should be able to legislate: take positions both for and against what the Town’s leadership has proposed, not to mention proposing our own articles and amendments and deciding on them as we see fit.

That’s an uncontroversial point. As I tried to voice it, however, I found myself shouted down by Belmont’s Moderator, Mike Widmer, who stood on the stage behind and above me and raged into his microphone that I was “out of order.” As you can see in the clip of the exchange below, I was surprised – shocked even. It threw me off from what I had planned to say and had me scrambling (mentally) to figure out what our Moderator was going to allow me to say.

I was surprised – shocked even. It threw me off from what I had planned to say and had me scrambling (mentally) to figure out what our Moderator was going to allow me to say.

– Paul Roberts, Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

How was that ‘out of order,’ exactly? As the video shows, I was speaking directly to the article at hand and simply urging Town Meeting not to be a rubber stamp needed to enact the Town leadership’s priorities. This was straightforward political speech. I noted in my address, for example, that the Warrant Committee – unlike Town Meeting – are not elected, but appointed (by the Moderator) and, therefore, were not accountable to Belmont voters. That particular observation seemed to make the Moderator angry.

As you can hear in the clip, Moderator Widmer decided that my critique of Warrant Committee and the Select Board was “impugning their motives” and was not to be permitted at Town Meeting.

Breaking my silence to inform Belmont voters

If it sounds wrong and undemocratic to you that impugning the motives of elected leaders is forbidden, you’re not alone. It felt really wrong to me. Right after the meeting, I wrote a lengthy email to Moderator Widmer expressing my disappointment and demanding an apology. I expressed my belief that he had stepped over a line: putting his thumb on the scale of debate by declaring some types of speech (that critical of town leadership) unacceptable.

Moderator Widmer at the June Town Meeting declaring me “out of order” for “impugning the motives” of Town Officials.

No apology was forthcoming. Moderator Widmer clearly felt he was within his rights as Moderator to shut down speech he considered disrespectful to his Committee and the Select Board. And that was that. I sat on my disappointment and my sense of being disrespected, silenced and bullied.

But with Moderator Widmer now facing a challenge for his seat – which hasn’t happened in his 16 years in office – I realized that Belmont’s voters needed to know about my experience being silenced by Moderator Widmer. What I needed was an unbiased take on what I experienced. So I reached out to the ACLU of Massachusetts to get their read on it, sharing a video of the June Town Meeting and directing them to my exchange with Moderator Widmer.

ACLU: beware of ‘viewpoint discrimination’

While the ACLU did not render a legal opinion (that’s something left to the courts), the group’s Legal Resources Team did point me to a couple cases that suggest Moderator Widmer did step over a line – engaging in something called “viewpoint discrimination,” in which political leaders use their positions to effectively ‘outlaw’ certain points of view.

How does viewpoint discrimination work? Well, imagine for a minute that I rose to address Town Meeting on June 5th and launched into a lengthy aside praising the work of Warrant Committee and the Select Board – the hours of work they volunteer to the Town, their wisdom and foresight and so on. Do you see Moderator Widmer gaveling me down and shouting that I’m out of order in that case? Absolutely not. In fact, such sweet talk to Town leadership is a fixture of Town Meetings under Moderator Widmer, who clearly sees such stuff as constructive and permitted.

By allowing praise, but outlawing criticism of Town officials, our Moderator is engaged in ‘viewpoint discrimination’ – putting his thumb on the scale of what kinds of speech are allowed in debate and bending public discourse to suit his preferences. That’s not what a Moderator’s job is – and its not what our State and Federal Consitutions see as the role of elected, public officials.

MASS SJC: Criticism of officials is protected speech

In their email response to me, the ACLU of Massachusetts noted that the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled a year ago in the case of Barron v. Kolenda that, under the Massachusetts state constitution, criticism of public officials is not a valid reason to curtail input during public comment portions of public meetings. That case hinged on a contentious Select Board Meeting in Southborough and the application of town ‘civility code’ that requires all dialogue to be ‘respectful and courteous.’ The Select Board applied that rule in threatening to eject a Southborough resident from the meeting that they deemed to be uncivil in her comments.

“Allowing praise of elected officials but not criticism is (viewpoint discrimination)”

– ACLU of Massachusetts

In so doing, however, the SJC ruled that it violated the right of the people under Article 19 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which gives Massachusetts residents the right ‘to request redress of wrongs done to them and grievances they had suffered.’ Southborough’s civility code also violated Article 16 of the Declaration of Rights, as amended by art. 77 of the Amendments to the Constitution, by crossing the line into viewpoint discrimination, the SJC ruled.

Is Town Meeting a public meeting? Does it matter?

For the sake of clarity and transparency, let me say that the ACLU of Massachusetts also noted in their response that there is a legal debate about whether Town Meetings – which function as local legislatures – are bound by the same rules as meetings open to public participation.

For example, the First Circuit ruled in a related 2007 case Curin v. Egremont that a Moderator was within their rights to prevent non-residents from speaking at Town Meeting. That ruling is based on its conclusion that Town meeting was a legislative forum and not a public forum to which unencumbered free speech rights attach. Prohibiting non-residents or non-Town Meeting members from speaking isn’t “viewpoint discrimination,” the court ruled, because the viewpoints of the speakers is not determinative of whether their voice is heard. Rather, whether they stood for office and were elected by voters was what determined whether they got to speak.

ACLU: have a word with your Moderator

Whether “the SJC would agree with that conclusion under our state constitution is an open question,” however, the Mass ACLU legal team wrote me. But even if it did, there is language in the Barron case that make clear the court deemed “content-based government-imposed restrictions on free expression… subject to strict scrutiny under Article 16, regardless of forum.” The First Circuit in Curin “explicitly reserved judgment on whether the result would be different if a Moderator engaged in actual viewpoint discrimination (which allowing praise of elected officials but not criticism is) and that it was not presented with issues under our state constitution,” the ACLU of Massachusetts wrote.

The ACLU’s advise to me? “Certainly, it would seem appropriate for concerned members of the Town to communicate with the Moderator and the public about the values underlying the Barron case and their potential applicability in the Town meeting context. Whether or not constitutionally required, the Town might wish for their Moderator to honor those values,” the ACLU of Massachusetts wrote.

Its time for change, Belmont

Where does this leave us as voters? I think it leaves us in need of a change. Yes, Belmont’s bylaws and the State’s Open Meeting Law give our Moderator and the chairs of public bodies broad discretion to conduct public discussion. However, as the ACLU of Massachusetts pointed out to me, that does not mean they can engage in content and viewpoint discrimination or restrict criticism – even if such a restriction seems to be allowed under the Town’s bylaws. In short, there are larger issues at stake here: our right to free speech and our right to criticize elected officials as both Massachusetts residents and citizens of the United States.

We need a Moderator who values free expression and is looking to encourage, not tamp down the diversity of opinions in our Town Meeting and other public forums. Like many of you, I appreciate the work that our Select Board and Warrant Committee do for Belmont. But that work doesn’t inoculate them from criticism or dissent, as our current Moderator seems to think it does.

Think hard about what kind of Moderator you want leading Town Meeting and sitting at the top of our Town Government Belmont. Stand up for the rights of all Town Meeting members to speak up against the powers that be and have their voices heard.