Let Massholes Be Massholes, Says Bay State’s High Court
Massachusetts residents have a reputation for an abrasive style that has earned them the nickname “Massholes” among their neighbors. They can be abrasive when traveling, they can be abrasive with one another and, courtesy of a free speech-affirming decision issued this week by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, they’re legally protected when being abrasive in all their Masshole glory with government officials. It’s a win for the value of speech rights, even when politicians don’t like how they’re exercised.
“Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting without violating [articles 16 and 19] of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which provide for a robust protection of public criticism of governmental action and officials,” the Supreme Judicial Court ruled March 7 in Barron v. Kolenda.
The case was brought by plaintiffs including Louis Barron, who was cut off and threatened with physical expulsion from a Southborough board of selectmen meeting in 2018. She had vigorously spoken up—comparing an official to Hitler at one point—to object to open meeting law violations and other excesses and ruffled the feathers of Southborough’s elected government. They invoked a public comment policy requiring “civility” at such meetings to muzzle their critic.
Barron and two other plaintiffs sued to have the policy declared unconstitutional. They prevailed in a decision that generously cites the work of John and Samuel Adams. Drawing on the often-vicious disputes of the revolutionary period, the decision has implications for contemporary government officials who frequently object to the strong language in which they’re criticized. In the lawsuit, Barron initially cited both federal and state constitutional objections to the civility code, before settling on Massachusetts’s own protections. That had her drawing on the efforts of the nation’s founders.
America’s Founders Weren’t Polite
“As the text of art. 19, which was drafted by John Adams with some assistance from his cousin Samuel Adams, along with its illuminating constitutional history, is directly applicable and dispositive of the claims here, we focus on art. 19 first,” Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote for
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