Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After several efforts, two members of the Missoula City Council on Monday night prevailed in their attempt to change council rules to permit “profane, insolent and slanderous” remarks as an expression of “free speech.”

Council members Daniel Carlino and Sandra Vasecka pushed for the rule change, saying it was necessary to comply with a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court.

“The changes made to public comment rules are based on upholding our constitutional rights for people to speak freely to our government,” Carlino told the Missoula Current after the meeting. “This is nothing new, but it’s a necessity for upholding a democracy.”

Not everyone bought into that perspective, saying any government body must maintain order and some level of decorum during public comment.

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In the past, some speakers have addressed the City Council in a way that left some feeling threatened while creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for those in attendance.

But working with the City Attorney’s Office, council members feel the new rule, as adopted on Monday, strikes balance between free speech and creating an atmosphere where all attendees feel welcome.

Put one way, chastising local government is fine, but threatening officials or speakers is not, nor is disrupting a meeting.

“We’re obviously a fan of the First Amendment and free speech, but we also want to make sure everyone who comes to council chambers is on equal footing and that their voice is heard,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “Keeping a level of decorum and professionalism makes it a safe place for all.”

Carlino has attempted to change a number of City Council rules over the last year, including one that would require any referral he or someone else presented to be heard in committee.

Changes to Rule 4, approved on Monday, occurred only after it was brought to a point where all council members could support it. While it permits some forms of speech, it still leaves room for a council member to call a point of order if a speaker crosses the line of decorum.

“Having language about people striving to be professional and courteous, while it’s vague, is something the council has the authority to require,” said City Attorney Ryan Sudbury. “There is sometimes conduct that is disruptive of City Council meetings. That conduct can be prohibited.”

Vasecka said she was comfortable with the agreed-upon changes to Rule 4.

“I’m happy we were able to come to a compromise and have language that is comfortable with everybody,” she said.

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