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Tim Myers: Council hesitant on speech issues

Posted: November 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Why do “The Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” command (relatively) large audiences?

I put forward the following theory: The people of America laugh behind the backs of these folks and their ridiculous shenanigans, waiting for the eventual meltdown and mild tragedy.

I put forward a secondary theory: The shows only work because the protagonists believe people find them serious and compelling; in other words, no one let them in on the joke.

Consider “The Daily Show” and its early history of ambush interviews. I found nothing more hilarious than the reaction of folks without knowledge of the format of the show attempting to process ridiculous questions from what a moment before appeared serious interviewers.

And consider the local version of Santa Clarita’s own video trickster “NotaFerryFan,” whose creative YouTube videos use out-of-context shots, slow motion, subtitles and added music to ruthlessly mock elected officials, even to the point of attacks on their personal appearance and demeanor.

And hence lies the problem with the recent kerfuffle concerning video presentations before the Santa Clarita City Council.

Unlike the Kardashians, our elected officials understand all too well how the permanent record of video that exists today can suddenly reappear to embarrass and subject the victim to mockery.

The latest City Council meeting included Act II of discussion regarding the norms and procedures of City Council actions. In a prior column, I rather roundly mocked the Orwellian content of the first proposal, which seemed to muzzle elected officials and obligate them to clear everything with the minister of propaganda, er, communications manager before speaking to the press.

Further, the norms indicated that elected officials could not speak directly to city employees but must only utilize the city manager as ambassador.

Predictably, the public and TimBen Boydston, the council member most muzzled by the new norms and procedures, protested at a previous council meeting, leading the drafters of the new norms, Bob Kellar and Frank Ferry, to protest that English words do not mean what they say, and of course they did not mean that elected officials needed to clear everything through the Politburo before speaking publicly.

This led to version 2.0 of the norms and procedures, where the most restrictive instances of “shall” found themselves replaced by “should.” In other words, the new version rendered the norms and procedures rather toothless, and I for one celebrate the triumph of free speech and the small “r” of republican government in which elected representatives can exercise their independent judgment accountable only to the electorate and not un-elected professionals.

But one item still stuck in the craw of (most) of the elected council members. The city attorney concluded the norms and procedures could not restrict video presentations entirely, but could only restrict their length, and perhaps ask that people planning to use a video to submit them in advance.

This brought responses from Councilwomen Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean in the form of amateur lawyering that would make originalist readers of the United States Constitution proud.

The gist of their argument? The First Amendment to the Constitution protects “speech” and that surely only relates to a person standing and speaking.

It could not apply to video presentations, since the Founding Fathers possessed no knowledge or foresight of video and certainly would never anticipate YouTube.

And despite the steadfastness of the city attorney in stating that video presentations did indeed constitute a form of protected speech, Weste even at one point admonished the educated and licensed gentleman to go back to his “law books” and see if he really thought he arrived at a correct conclusion.

In the end, the council relented and followed the city attorney’s recommendation to limit the length of video presentations and also to require prior submission for review.

This left the sliver of Santa Claritans who actually follow City Council proceedings to wonder about the motivation and commitment of elected officials.

One might assert that a majority of the council only wants to serve if the council meetings don’t get too long due to public participation, they don’t need to read anything embarrassing in the newspaper that’s not filtered and properly sterilized by city professionals, and finally they don’t find themselves required to view videos that mock them.

If this indeed constitutes their view, maybe they should consider whether they want to continue to serve at the next election.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. “Myers’ Musings” runs Saturdays in The Signal.


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