Will St. Cloud Rescind Controversial Gag Rule on City Councilors?

It may finally be dawning on the St. Cloud City Council that the gag rule prohibiting individual members from publicly disagreeing with council actions approved by the majority violates the constitutional right to free speech.

The issue surfaced last September after city councilor George Hontos wrote a letter to the editor criticizing his colleagues’ decision to move the period for public comment to the end of city council meetings.

The council quickly censured Hontos for violating its rules of conduct requiring members to “respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implementation of ordinances, policies, and rules passed by the majority.”

The censure prompted an outcry from the Minnesota ACLU and other free speech advocates accusing the city of flagrantly violating members’ First Amendment rights. Months later, however, the city council continues to hem and haw over whether to rescind or rewrite its self-imposed limits on freedom of expression.

For his part, Hontos made sure the issue was front and center at the council’s retreat last week, according to the St. Cloud Times.

“The idea that we can’t say we don’t like it, my goodness,” Hontos said, later adding, “You cannot force someone to put duct tape over their mouth and not allow them to voice their opinion.”

“You’re supposed to have discourse in governing. You’re supposed to have debate,” Hontos said.

Yet several of city councilors still adamantly support a policy that effectively amounts to a gag rule on elected officials.

Council President Jeff Goerger advocated for a healthy debate before a council vote, but not publicly after the action is passed by the majority.

Council member Mike Conway said he’s perplexed by the debate to begin with and called it a bastardization of a First Amendment issue.

“Every profession out there has rules that they agree to as part of being a professional,” Conway said.

From the sound of it, the St. Cloud City Council might want to take a Civics 101 refresher course at next year’s retreat. Unless the policy gets challenged first in court by a group closely monitoring what happens next.