There’s more than one way to send the wrong message.
The Schenectady City Council’s Public Safety Committee should be commended for sending the right one.
On Tuesday night, the committee wisely rejected a resolution proposed by Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas to condemn statements regarding police funding that have been made by a member of the city school board, outspoken activist Jamaica Miles.
Zalewski-Wildzunas said Miles’ comments calling to defund the police were undermining efforts to improving relations between the community and the police, and that by speaking out in this way, Miles was “driving a wedge” between the school and the police department.
First off, the council should be very careful about what speech it condemns.
Freedom of speech was included in the very first amendment to the Constitution because it’s a fundamental tenet of a free society.
If the government gets in the habit of condemning any speech it finds detrimental, disruptive or offensive, that acts as a chill factor to those who may feel threatened by the government action and serves to suppress or discourage all speech.
Whether Ms. Miles is being disruptive or contrary to the goals of the council is of no consequence. As a citizen, she is free to express her views as she sees fit, and she shouldn’t have to fear retribution or condemnation from the government for speaking out.
The other potential message this sends is that the council is antithetic to those who, like Miles, have legitimate concerns about police conduct and about how Blacks are treated in society in general.
Maybe that wasn’t the intent of this resolution, but that’s certainly how some could take it. And if some receive the message that way, how does that help facilitate the open dialogue and cooperation between the community and police that Zalewski-Wildzunas and other supporters on the council say they want to foster?
A resolution like this could serve to drive the wedge even deeper.
Council members could demonstrate their support for police in other ways, such as by continuing to support funding during the city’s budget process and speaking out in favor of initiatives that promote progress in police-community relations.
And Ms. Zalewski-Wildzunas is free, as an individual citizen, to exercise her freedom of speech to condemn and criticize Ms. Miles if she choses.
But when attempts to discourage or suppress free speech come from the government, it carries power that the council should be very reluctant to exercise.
When government gets away with taking away one right, it’s a slippery slope to taking away others.
That’s a steep hill the council was smart not to go down.