An editorial from The Cheshire Herald:
These are tense times.
Emotions are running high, and have been even before a pandemic frayed what seemed to be the country’s last nerve. We appear ready to fight about everything, even the things about which we have only minor disagreements.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that civility is at a low point. Shouting has replaced talking as the preferred way of communication for too many, whether they are doing so out in public or over social media. The dial on discourse seems to always be turned up to 11.
That’s led to some unfortunate situations, particularly in August when a “education roundtable” discussion in Cheshire, hosted by local school administrators and attended by several state officials, including Gov. Ned Lamont, descended into chaos as protestors, angered over the state’s in-school mask mandates, disrupted the event. Even those who share many of the same sentiments as the protestors with regard to mask mandates for students expressed dismay over the incident.
With so much anger floating around, there’s a concern that such displays will become more frequent and make regular meetings of local commissions more and more contentious.
As such, we understand the inclination to establish some sort of “civility code,” as was discussed during a recent Board of Education meeting. Little in the way of details was provided as to what such a code could look like, but those who offered support for the idea stated that it would simply serve as a guidepost for running smoother, more civil meetings in the future.
Without any specifics on which to go, it’s hard to offer a “yes” or “no” opinion on a “civility code.” However, we agree with BOE member Faith Ham who expressed initial hesitation in going down the road of “codes” regarding public interaction. If the District wants to pursue this, it must proceed with extreme caution.
No one wants to see meetings turn into shouting matches, but for the most part, when the Cheshire public arrives to express dismay over particular policies or initiatives, the proceedings do not descend into unruly verbal altercations. The incident at the roundtable was notable, not only because it was spurred by a mask mandate that has received backlash wherever it has been implemented across the country, but also because it was quite out of character for this community as a whole.
Cheshire schools have, in recent years, debated controversial online curriculums, bullying, and now strategies related to a once-in-a-century pandemic, and for the most part the discussions have been tense but level-headed. The comments from the public have been impassioned but not so aggressive so as to create a sense of danger. In other words, things are tense but, it would seem, manageable.
Given that, is a new “code” truly necessary?
District leaders have done a fine job of keeping public meetings from boiling over, and they should be commended for it. It seems they already have a pretty good idea of how to keep things civil. And it should be noted that the vast majority of the public who attend meetings conduct themselves in the proper manner, even if they make their points forcefully and, at times, bluntly.
Again, everyone should reserve judgment on a potential “civility code” until such a code is actually written and presented for review. This discussion appears to be at the beginning stages. But, as a rule, codes designed to control public discourse often serve to discourage it or provide so much ambiguity regarding what is and isn’t “allowed” as to create more confusion than is necessary.
All who attend meetings should be civil. No one should allow their emotions to get the better of them. But governments at every level should be hesitant to go down the road of attempting to govern the way in which the public interacts with its elected officials.
Only a code that has the lightest of touch should be considered.