St. Cloud City Council finally ditches speech restrictions

For years the St. Cloud City Council has operated under rules of conduct that in effect amount to a gag rule on free speech. Duly elected city council members were prohibited from publicly criticizing council actions after passage because doing so undermined a majority vote of the council under the rules of conduct.

The issue came to a head last fall when the city council voted 4-2 to censure fellow councilor George Hontos for writing a critical letter to the editor regarding a change in policy for citizens addressing the council. The council  censured the outspoken Hontos for ignoring its requirement that members “respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implementation of ordinances, policies, and rules passed by the majority.”

Free speech advocates flagged the action and underlying rules of conduct as a flagrant violation of the constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. It didn’t help the city council’s case that members violated the Minnesota Open  Meeting Law by holding a secret ballot for the censure vote.

RELATED: Did the St. Cloud City Council Violate State Law?

This week common sense finally prevailed as the St. Cloud City Council rescinded and replaced the requirements with Hontos’ blessing, according to the St. Cloud Times.

The council voted unanimously Monday to remove the current rules of conduct — a list of 10 statements for how members act and treat each other — with a list of eight “aspirational principles of civility and professional conduct.”

“I would say these changes are necessary and legally appropriate,” said council member George Hontos, whose actions last fall sparked the debate over the rules.

Here’s the new checklist of aspirational ways to conduct city business before the public.

  1. Be polite. Treat others with respect and dignity.
  2. Maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.
  3. Speak only when recognized by the president.
  4. Listen to the other side.
  5. Focus on issues, not personalities.
  6. Avoid questioning motives.
  7. Be respectful in debate when there are differences of opinion.
  8. Respect the majority vote.

“These aspirational principals should not be construed to infringe or constrain the free speech rights of individual council members,” stated Matt Staehling, city administrator, in agenda documents for Monday’s meeting.

The Aspirational Principles of Civility and Conduct based on Robert’s Rules of Order passed the council unanimously. While applauding the changes, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota plans to keep on eye on their implementation.

“While this is a significant improvement, we are concerned that the new principles still include a requirement to ‘respect the majority vote,’ which is not defined and has the potential to squelch opposing viewpoints,” McKinney said. “We will continue to monitor the application of these principles to ensure that they are not applied in a manner that interferes with the free speech rights of council members.”