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Giving lip service to debate

There has been great controversy regarding the forcible removal of a Howard County parent from a Maryland State Department of Education town hall meeting a week ago after he insisted on orally asking a politically inconvenient question about the Common Core curriculum. Only written questions were allowed.

Robert Small was roughly grabbed and physically removed from the meeting and humiliated and handcuffed, although charges of assaulting an officer were later dropped by Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger. There is no evidence in the available video of the incident that Mr. Small provoked the off-duty Baltimore County police officer who was providing security at the event sufficiently to warrant such treatment.

In an uncharacteristically intemperate assessment, Mr. Shellenberger defended the arrest and initial levying of charges in view of Mr. Small's "[violation of] the rules of the meeting and [disruption of] the meeting."

Mr. Shellenberger surely cannot believe that those minor irritations justify such an undemocratic overreaction on the part of a police officer.

The Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance never mentioned Mr. Small's removal in his statement regarding the public meeting, even though the security agent acted per the request of Mr. Dance's chief of staff. Of course not. He was uninterested in disagreement and, as a Sun editorial characterized his actions, was trying "to silence Mr. Small."

Mr. Dance only wanted to have the appearance of open public discussion and the appearance of entertaining the marketplace of ideas.

I have participated in hundreds of public speaking events in my career: as featured speaker, panelist, and organizer, as well as a member of the audience.

The issues at town hall meetings, open to the public, are who controls the agenda and who controls the spin. When organizers of such a public hearing of major issues decide that members of the audience will be able to submit questions in writing only, it is to deny everyone but the moderator and/or the members of the panel an ability to determine what is discussed and what it means.

They decide what questions to allow, and there is no oversight. Submitted questions then can be ignored without dissent. Even the questions chosen do not have to be read verbatim or in their entirely. Often the appearance of tendered questions merely serves to placate citizens in opposition to the policy issues at hand.

That flaw can be mitigated if the person selecting and answering the questions is a trusted, neutral third party, but that was not the case here. Members of the audience had reason to doubt whether Mr. Dance would ask the hard questions — and those doubts were amply justified by the way things turned out.

Decades ago, the current McHugh Professor of American Institutions and Leadership at Colorado College, Thomas Cronin, wrote a perspicacious article titled "Everybody Believes in Democracy Until He Gets To the White House" in a Duke University journal, Law and Contemporary Problems.

Professor Cronin argued in that piece and in lectures that whereas presidents give rhetorical cover to democracy, once they have the reins of power, they are not much interested in promoting free speech or dissent. The same tends to be true of people in lesser positions of power, as evidenced by last week's town hall.

The fact is that most people know how to employ the necessary rhetoric to provide the appearance of wanting to hear all sides of policy disputes, but many simply don't want to hear disagreement and don't want genuine public debate.

Irrespective of the quality of Mr. Small's objections, the stifling of dissent while appearing to give full airing to Common Core's set of standards was the operant motive of the sham public meeting hosted by Mr. Dance.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2013). His email is rvatz@towson.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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