Town moderator to rescind ban on unofficial handouts at town meetings

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

On the advice of town counsel, Southampton, Mass., Moderator Gary Swanson says he will not implement a policy that would have limited the distribution of information outside Town Meetings.

Attorney David Doneski told Swanson on Aug. 12 that the policy violated the First Amendment.

“It is a policy that has not been enforced and will not be enforced,” Swanson told the First Amendment Center Online.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sent Swanson a letter July 30 protesting the policy.

Last month, Swanson announced that only written material approved by town officials could be handed out within 150 feet of the building where Town Meetings are held. The policy was adapted from election laws prohibiting campaigning within 150 feet of the polls.

Former Southampton Selectman Barbara LaFlam brought the policy to the attention of the ACLU. Attorney William Newman, director of the Western Regional Office of the Massachusetts ACLU, wrote Swanson a letter stating that the policy muzzled free speech.

“The policy says a citizen can express an opinion — as long as it’s approved by the government,” Newman said on Aug. 10. “This is a place where people are supposed to engage in robust debate.”

Swanson told reporters earlier that the restrictions were prompted by a special Town Meeting on June 5 at which LaFlam distributed copies of a letter from Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik to selectmen opposing a proposed land swap.

The Town Meeting narrowly voted down the land swap, and residents booed selectmen when they called for a police investigation into how Tautznik’s letter became available before they received it.

The inquiry ended when Tautznik pointed out that his letter was a public document.

Swanson says he plans to announce the withdrawal of the policy today at a special Town Meeting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.