Widmer: Criticism of Committees Won’t Be Allowed at Town Meeting

Belmont’s Moderator Mike Widmer declared emphatically in a debate Monday evening that, if he is re-elected, Town Meeting Members will not be permitted to speak critically of the Town’s appointed committees, equating Town Meeting members’ criticism of the performance- or decisions of town officials and committees with personal, “ad hominem attacks” and abusive speech worthy of censorship.

For Widmer: Criticism = Attacks

Widmer said that if re-elected, he would not hesitate to “draw the line” and shut down any criticism of “individuals or committees” at Town Meeting – an approach he claimed was legal and supported by Belmont’s Town Counsel, George Hall.

Widmer’s statements came during a debate sponsored by the Belmont Pan Asian Coalition and the Belmont Chinese American Association. Widmer, who has been at the center of the Town’s political establishment for more than three decades, is seeking his 17th consecutive one year term as Moderator, and faces his first competitive election. He was responding to a question about how to promote “civil debate” at Town Meeting.

Click the play button below to view a clip from the Monday night debate.

In this excerpt from the debate, Moderator Widmer and Mike Crowley debate whether Town Meeting members have a right to speak critically of Town Committees.

Widmer said that while debate is permitted at Town Meeting, that debate must not include critical comments about “individuals or committees,” equating comments that are made by Town Meeting members critical of our elected or appointed leaders with threatening or discriminatory speech that courts have generally ruled is not covered by state and federal free speech protections. “Criticism of individuals and committees on town meeting floor is absolutely not constitutionally protected speech,” Widmer declared.

Crowley: Town Meeting has a right to voice criticism

Widmer’s red line on criticizing town leadership contrasted sharply with that of his opponent, Mike Crowley, a Town Meeting Member and former Warrant Committee and School Committee member.

In a back and forth, Crowley made clear that he did not consider criticism of Town officials or committees to be “attacks,” but constitutionally protected speech. Town Meeting members were within their rights to take issue with- or express displeasure with the work or performance of elected or appointed members of the Town’s government, including the Moderator.

“Criticism of individuals and committees on town meeting floor is absolutely not constitutionally protected speech.”

– Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

Crowley said he would draw a hard line on banning racist, threatening or discriminatory speech as well as personal attacks at Town Meeting. But he emphasized that criticism of Town leadership and committees had to be allowed. Town Meeting members and residents have a legal right to voice criticism of their government and should be free to do so, he said. Comments that are critical of elected leaders is protected by the State’s Constitution, Crowley reminded Widmer.

For Freedoms
Questioning and criticizing government is a proud tradition of New England Town Meetings. Will it survive in Belmont?

“In a civil manner, sometimes those opinions may include criticism of something that the town is doing – something that a town body is doing, (or) something that the town moderator is doing. From my perspective, this is constitutionally protected speech. We have to allow it,” Crowley said. “If it descends into…hate speech or racist homophobic or other kinds of really profoundly disturbing speech, that would not be tolerated,” he said.

Widmer interjected and strongly disagreed with Crowley. “It is not constitutionally protected speech. What is protected is fair debate. The moderator establishes the rules to ensure that there is fair debate and no personal attacks.”

Ad hominem? Try ad Consilium!

While its clear that harassing or threatening speech can be banned, Widmer has apparently adopted a broad definition of “attacks” to include not just harassing speech but any speech that expresses criticism of a elected official or appointed committee. That may well run afoul of state law, the ACLU of Massachusetts told me when I inquired about Widmer’s decision to declare me “out of order” at a June, 2023 Town Meeting for observing that the Warrant Committee and Select Board’s would like to have Town Meeting be a rubber stamp for their decisions. Widmer said I was “out of order” because I “impugned the motives” of the committee. (So…free speech, yeah?)

As this blog noted, there is an active debate in the courts right now about the extent to which elected leaders like Widmer can censor public speech that is critical of elected leaders. The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled a year ago in the case of Barron v. Kolenda that, a Southborough ‘civility code’ that required all dialogue to be ‘respectful and courteous’ violated the rights of residents 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 Article 77 of the Amendments to the Constitution, by crossing the line into viewpoint discrimination – permitting certain points of view while outlawing others – the SJC ruled.

At the level of grammar, Widmer’s application of “ad hominem” to committees rings hollow, also. A latin term, ad hominem literally means “to the man” and is used to describe words or actions directed at an individual. That phrase can’t be applied to committees that are made up of many individuals. In saying the Warrant Committee or Select Board would like Town Meeting to be a rubber stamp, for example, I was not naming or criticizing any individual on those committees, but the predisposition of the committees collectively. The phrase Widmer is looking for is “ad Consilium” -to the committee- though that doesn’t have the emotional charge of “ad hominem attack,” does it?

First Circuit: state constitution bans content-based restrictions on speech

Widmer seems to be basing his conclusion that the Moderator can shut down criticism of town committees on a 2007 case, Curin v. Egremont, in which a federal court rule that a town Moderator was within their rights to prevent non-residents from speaking at Town Meeting because Town Meetings are legislative gatherings, not public meetings.

The court decided that prohibiting non-residents or non-Town Meeting members from speaking isn’t “viewpoint discrimination,” because the expressed viewpoints of residents didn’t determine whether or not they were allowed to speak – their status as elected members of Town Meeting was. IIn its communications with me, the ACLU of Massachusetts said that “viewpoint discrimination” – for example: permitting praise of Town committees, but prohibiting criticism of them – has generally been seen by courts as not allowed under the state’s constitution.

For example, the First Circuit also made clear in its ruling on Curin v. Egremont that “content-based government-imposed restrictions on free expression” is “subject to strict scrutiny under Article 16, regardless of forum.” (That is: Town Meeting is not exempt.) 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.

Widmer: Belmont’s attorney OK with red line on criticism

Widmer strongly disagreed with the idea that a Moderator outlawing criticism of Town Committees violates the State’s constitutional protections and claimed that the Town’s counsel supported his reading of the law.

I have emailed our Town Counsel, George Hall, seeking confirmation that he and his firm, Anderson Krieger, agree that Town Moderators are within their rights to ban expressions by elected Town Meeting members that are critical of elected leaders in the name of “civil discourse.”

I have not heard back, but will update this blog when I do.

Belmont’s Civil Dysfunction

While prioritizing civility and (enforced) harmony over contentious debate may seem like a good idea – especially in a time of intense political polarization – there’s a lot of evidence that it hurts Belmont’s government rather than help it.

The Collins Center Report, for example, noted that Belmont’s decentralized and fractured Town government is hampered by the Town government’s “existing structure and divided appointing authorities,” but also by the unspoken rule “in Belmont of boards, committees, and officials generally not challenging each other’s positions or conclusions on given issues. In sum, the organizational structure leads to financial disarray,” the Collins Center report concluded (page 13).

The Moderator has crossed a line. But will it matter?

With the Town’s election less than a week away, it remains to be seen how the revelations of Widmer’s extreme position on allowing criticism of Town officials will play out at the ballot box.

For residents who value our First Amendment rights of free expression, and the long and proud American tradition of speaking truth to power and questioning their government without fear of retribution, Widmer’s declaration that he will disallow criticism of officials by Belmont’s legislature should cause some residents to think twice about whether this Moderator has overstayed his welcome.

Remember to vote on April 2nd!