YELM, Wash. — A policy prohibiting certain public comments during City Council meetings has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The group believes the policy barring any mention of “Wal-Mart” or “big-box stores” in general is unconstitutional, said Aaron H. Caplan, an ACLU lawyer in Seattle, in a letter to Yelm Mayor Adam Rivas and council members.
The policy has been increasingly restrictive over the past five months. No one who signs up to talk about big-box stores or Wal-Mart is allowed to talk, and anyone who mentions either is told to sit down.
“Initially we couldn’t use the term ‘Wal-Mart,’ so the code word became ‘big-box stores,’ ” said Gregory May, who heads up a Wal-Mart opposition group in Yelm. “They then just announced they would no longer accept any comments about Wal-Mart or big-box stores.”
Municipal attorney Brent Dille said council members were fed up with complaints about Wal-Mart’s application to build a superstore and demands for a moratorium on big-box stores. He also said officials didn’t want to appear biased if the council was presented with an appeal of Wal-Mart’s application.
Caplan wrote that no law requires the council to forbid all mention of the issue at its meetings.
“The ability of citizens to state their views about matters of public concern is one of the cornerstones of a free and accountable government,” he wrote. “Yelm’s practice of silencing public comment violates that principle.”
Rivas, however, said federal court rulings cited by Caplan don’t apply to Yelm.
“Everything they list in there comes from court cases in other states that have nothing to do with Washington state and the appearance of fairness act that we’re trying to uphold,” the mayor said. “For the most part, we feel fairly confident in what we’re doing and the steps that we’re taking.”
ACLU spokesman Doug Honig disagreed, saying the First Amendment applies to every citizen of the United States.
Rivas said he did not expect any change in policy as the result of the letter and that he did not plan to answer it, despite Caplan’s request for a response this month.
“We don’t answer to the ACLU,” Rivas said.
The ACLU is not planning a lawsuit over the issue, Honig said, because, despite Rivas’ comments, municipal attorney Dille called the ACLU soon after they received the letter and agreed to send a written clarification of the policy and an explanation of how it would be enforced in the future.
“Many times our role is to help [educate] public officials about the Constitution,” Honig said. “Most of our work doesn’t result in lawsuits.”
Dille said he had been in touch with Caplan and that the ACLU seemed willing to accept a ban on discussion of Wal-Mart but felt the latest policy was excessive.
Dille would not comment to The Olympian about a parallel ban on the use of the word “moratorium.”
“I wasn’t at that (council) meeting,” he said.
A call to national Wal-Mart headquarters seeking comment was referred to local store officials, who didn’t immediately return a call.
The ACLU has also expressed concern about a new rule limiting public comments at Pierce County Council meetings. Honig said that discussion could be heading toward litigation. That rule says “speakers may not attack or make an allusion to the motives of any council member.”