Gazette opinion: Billings City Council initiative threatens free speech

Gazette opinion: Billings City Council initiative threatens free speech


A new proposal up for discussion by the Billings City Council isn't just politically vindictive, it's also unconstitutional.

The initiative was introduced late on the night of Nov. 12 at the end of the City Council meeting. It was not on the agenda available to the public before the meeting. Six members of the 11-member City Council voted to move forward with Councilman Reg Gibbs' initiative that takes aim at free speech.

We wonder if they even begin to realize the hypocrisy of quashing political speech as politicians.

Before this assault on free speech could become a city ordinance, the council would have to allow public comment (insert irony here) at a future meeting. Basically this initiative seeks to allow the city to cancel any contract of a business or person who endorses a candidate for the City Council either officially or unofficially — Gibbs' words, not ours.

That means if you dare to do something as reckless as put up a yard sign, make a campaign contribution or commit an egregious act like writing a letter to the editor, the city would stop doing business with you, just because some City Council members want to legalize their hurt feelings. 

Setting aside momentarily the vagaries of what it means to officially or unofficially endorse a candidate, the six council members apparently believe that if a person, business or organization wants to do business, it should be willing to trade its free speech in return for being the lowest bidder on a government contract.

We believe this smacks of candidates who have their little feelings hurt by people who didn't automatically adore them and agree with their every position.

C'mon councilmembers, you're in politics. If you're doing it right, there's bound to be spirited and reasonable disagreement. The appropriate antidote to an opinion you don't like is to have an argument capable of defeating dissent. Instead, upset council members would rather trade free and spirited speech for the muzzle.

Six city council members — Chris Friedel, Reg Gibbs (the author of this Soviet-inspired policy), Richard Clark, Mike Yakawich, Roy Neese and Frank Ewalt — apparently support this backward position. And these same members believe the council should refuse to do business with someone who disagrees with them.

That would seem to be the very definition of cronyism. We hope they will realize the foolishness of this policy and reverse course.  

Doing the people's work should be a matter of qualifications, best value and lowest cost, not some ideology test set by officials in what are supposed to be nonpartisan offices.

Sure, The Gazette by its very history and nature, which includes editorial endorsement of city council candidates, would stand to have some contracts cancelled. And since we're on the topic of legality, the council should also expect that if this boneheaded measure passes, we will be among the first to file suit challenging the constitutionality of such an action, and we will use our power of free speech to remind the public of their elected leaders  who support such an unconstitutional idea.

The real issue here is that some thin-skinned city council members don't fancy the Billings Chamber of Commerce reporting how elected officials vote. The chamber had the audacity to talk about real issues, including local-option sales taxes, public safety, and the One Big Sky District. Rather than defending their positions, these council members would just stifle debate so as not to let their own feeble positions come under the sharp light of public scrutiny.

We would tell the Chamber that if this is the regressive, narrow-minded reaction that happens when voting records are published, then the only possible solution is to do more reporting, not less. Obviously, the Billings City Council wilts under too little scrutiny.

Give credit to Billings city staff. City Attorney Brent Brooks warned the council that adopting such a policy would have the city in court continuously.

For the record, we have sued the city repeatedly in the previous decade and won lawsuits and attorney's fees. The Gazette's track record is clear: We have often disagreed vehemently with the city staff and have sued to settle our differences. Yet, in this case, we believe Brooks is completely right. Cancelling the city contracts just because the city leaders doesn't share the same opinion is dangerous and legally unjustifiable.

How far does this logic go, and who gets to decide what endorsements and city opinions are reasonable? Which endorsements are orthodox? Which ones are wrong? And how would the city justify cancelling a contract when going with another business, vendor or contractor could result in costing thousands more to taxpayers?

The wording of the proposal is sure to fail a legal challenge, because it says that no one can give an official or unofficial endorsement. But, what constitutes an "unofficial" endorsement? A yard sign? An overheard conversation? And does this mean all endorsements or just ones a majority of city council member agree with?

The council must address serious community issues, including public safety, transportation, and growing a business community. Instead, it has decided to invest time in who gets political endorsements. 

If the council wants the public to support things like levies and address Billings' other problems, the least all members could do is let us talk freely. 


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