News Pensacola Politics

Free Speech Standoff

December 16, 2011

Holding his three-minute ground at the public lectern, Father Nathan Monk chanced an arrest during last night’s Pensacola City Council meeting. Two members of the board walked out of the chambers in protest of the scene.

“Using the police has a chilling effect on people’s constitutional rights,” said Councilwoman Sheri Myers, as she stepped out of City Hall and into a mild December evening.

Myers, and Councilman John Jerralds, took issue with new Council President Sam Hall’s quick trigger finger when it comes to cutting off public comment. Earlier in the week, Hall had several members of the public escorted from a Committee of the Whole meeting after he found their speech to be unpalatable or drifting off a given topic.

Monk was addressing Hall’s earlier actions when the council president gave the go ahead for police officers to remove him.

“I thought it was embarrassing what happened at the Monday meeting,” Monk had told the council. “If someone wants to connect the dots about the poverty they have and a loan that’s being taken out, they have a right to connect those dots.”

At the earlier meeting, Hall had a woman removed after she began a compare-and-contrast exercise regarding a $5 million loan the city is seeking to fund its natural gas ventures with a proposed ordinance that sought to outlaw sleeping on city property and using items—ranging from tents to pieces of newspaper—to keep warm.

“To throw someone out, that’s a shame, that’s embarrassing,” Monk told Hall, arguing that people should have the opportunity to address their government officials about any given matter during the three-minute public comment periods. “—weather they connect dots to Hitler, to George Wallace, to Barney.”

Hall then told Monk his time was up.

“I have a minute and 12 seconds,” Monk corrected him.

“I’m ruling you out of order,” Hall said.

Monk protested, saying he still had time on the clock. His previous argument—lobbying for people’s right to speak during the meeting—had suddenly become much more three-dimensional.

“I’m not leaving this podium,” Monk said, standing motionless as Police Chief Chip Simmons and another officer surrounded him. “I have 59 seconds left.”

After a tense moment—during which Myers and Jerralds walked out—Monk turned and left the gallery. Outside City Hall, he laid blame squarely at Hall’s feet.

“This has never happened until he’s been the council president,” he said. “Since he’s been the president of the council, all free speech has been limited.”

Monk expressed optimism that such a pattern could change.

“It will change,” he said. “Because this is America, because people have a right that is far bigger than this city.”

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