By Joe Cook, guest blogger, Second Congressional District voter, and formerly the Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from Second Congressional District Rep. Scott Rigell to attend his “Town Hall” meeting on March 21 at Azalea Gardens Middle School in Norfolk. Congressman Rigell wrote, “Part of my responsibility as your Congressman is to speak with you directly, answer your questions, explain my votes, and listen to your input…I hope you will be able to attend and I look forward to addressing any issue that concerns you or your family.”
I was pleased to accept the invitation and to have the opportunity to interact with my congressional representative. But I quickly found out upon my arrival that the event was rigged. Questioners were asked to write out their queries and sign them, but the written questions were then apparently screened to exclude certain ones based on the viewpoint expressed or, perhaps, the name on the card. I reached this conclusion because well into the meeting no challenging questions regarding the congressman’s votes or positions taken had been entertained.
Some folks at the meeting were apparently dissatisfied with the overly controlled process, so they turned the gathering into a more open forum -- more like the “town hall” the invitation had described -- by just speaking up to ask their questions or make comments. The questions and comments were friendly, and Congressmen Rigell accepted and answered them.
But after Congressman Rigell made misleading statements about deficit reduction in relation to his vote for HR-1, I decided that I, too, would ask a question. I arose and said, “You claim to want to create jobs, but that bill would destroy up to a million jobs, including 20,000 in Virginia, and cut vital public services….” Before I could finish, the congressman interrupted me and called me out of order, which he had not done with any of the friendly questioners who had spoken before.
I stepped back as asked, but almost immediately two on-duty Norfolk plain clothes police officers approached me and grabbed me by the arm. They told me to sit down and be quiet or they would forcibly remove me from the event. I explained that others had addressed Congressman Rigell without any such threats made to silence or censor them, but they retorted that Rigell or his staff had asked them to take this action against me.
I am outraged at having my free speech rights abridged in this way. This was directly contrary to the invitation to come and speak to him about “any issue that concerns you or your family.” I am further outraged that on-duty Norfolk police officers were paid with my tax dollars to further a political agenda by silencing me for asking a critical question of my congressman.
Rep. Rigell, despite his professed fealty to the Constitution -- copies of which he handed out after the event -- believes only in freedom for me but not for thee!
Unfortunately, the Second District congressman is not alone. These kinds of orchestrated “town hall” meetings are anything but town hall meetings, and they are being used with increasing frequency by elected officials. Indeed, there may be a whole generation of young people who believe that a town hall meeting is simply another campaign stop used by elected officials to further their own political agendas, and that they have nothing to do with a free exchange of ideas about matters of public interest.
This is certainly not what the framers of our Constitution meant by a town hall meeting. They meant a public forum for all views, and they protected the right of each of us to express those views in the First Amendment.
I encourage others who are fed up with such behavior from our elected officials to join me in demanding open forums with free speech at congressional town hall meetings so that a diversity of questions and viewpoints may be asked and expressed.
I look forward to hearing from others in the Second Congressional District who attended the March 21 meeting and reading your impressions of the meeting. We should begin by joining together to demand that Rep. Rigell hold real town meetings, but our goal should be to start a movement to demand that all elected officials respect our constitutional right to express our opinions at town hall meetings.
Joe Cook may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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