On Tuesday, March 5, the Town of Riverhead adopted a new law prohibiting disruptive booing in Town Board meetings. Apparently there had been a lot of disruptive booing going on in meetings. This would put a stop to it.
The booing prohibition was part of a larger measure that described many things you could no longer do at their Town Board meetings. The list included carrying disruptive signs into the meetings, and not allowing board members to speak a second time before all other members who want to speak on a topic have done so.
It also specified that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited at the beginning of the Town Board meeting. For a while, it seemed that excessive clapping was going to be included in the list. But in the end, that was struck from the version that was voted upon. As for a conversation about what the difference was between disruptive and non-disruptive, the board decided to save that for another time. For now, non-disruptive booing and sign-carrying would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
At the end of the discussion, the board heard comments from the audience before these rules would be voted upon. A woman named Dominique Mendez said she understood the ban on large protest signs but felt that small signs should be allowed. She pointed out that many people are uncomfortable speaking in public, and so preventing them from holding small signs with messages would unfairly restrict their freedom of expression.
The measure was passed by the Town Board by a vote of 4 to 1, with the one person objecting being Councilman James Wooten.
The next day, the ban on booing in Riverhead went viral. Stories about it appeared on Fox News, it showed up on the Associated Press wire and it was reported upon by newspapers as far away as Hawaii—where, I can tell you from personal experience, there’s no need to have a ban on booing because everybody is so polite.
Riverhead, I might add, has a long, recent history of authorities doing ridiculous things. The world waits for what’s next. This was the town in which, one year ago, high school administrators suspended students for “Tebowing” in the hallways in honor of Tim Tebow, the professional football quarterback. This was the town where many people who got married found their marriages were never recorded with New York State because of a computer glitch. This is the town where Google Earth was used to spy on the residents in hopes of finding some of them with swimming pools in their yards without the proper permits.
As a result of all the hubbub (and boo-hoo) that followed over the next few days as a result of the banishing of booing, the Town decided to reconsider the matter, uh, quickly.
On March 19, the Town Board considered removing disruptive booing from the list of things you can’t do at the meetings. A lot of discussion ensued. There was talk to the effect that if you remove the ban on booing, you ought to also remove the ban on carrying disruptive signs into the meetings. There was also talk that maybe small signs would be okay. People remembered Mendez’s point.
At the end of the day, a vote was called on whether or not to remove the ban on booing and also the ban on disruptive-sign carrying (all sizes). It passed by 4–1, with Councilman Wooten voting “no” to these changes in the same way he had voted “no” in the first place. He voted that way, he said, “to be consistent,” noting he thought the whole thing was stupid.