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The recent announcement by Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky that people who address the council during the citizens’ comment period will be limited to three minutes per person — five minutes if they represent a group — is fraught with peril.

First and foremost, no decision like this should be made unilaterally by the council president who, in the words of the late John Hardwicke, is just “one-seventh” of the voices on the council.

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Judge Hardwicke, who served as president of the Harford Council between 1978 and 1989 – longer than anyone to date, frequently expostulated that council members serve at the pleasure of the public and should listen to what the public has to say, regardless of how unpleasant what they might hear or how long it takes to hear it. And, yes, many of the council meetings he presided over ran for three to four hours, sometimes longer.

This editorial is being written a few hours before the council – all seven members, we presume – was scheduled to take up a review of rules on speaker time limits at Tuesday night’s legislative session, so we’ll assume nothing has yet been chiseled in stone.

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Regardless, if strict time limits are imposed, everyone loses: citizens, potential speakers and most of all the council members themselves.

The move to limit the public’s time to speak comes in the wake of some recent incidents of long-windedness on the part of individuals who appear before the council with some frequency. But the downside is that any effort to muzzle or limit a person’s right to speak runs contrary to the numerous constitutional protections that all citizens have to speak freely and to petition their government.

The council president and the council’s attorney, Charles Kearney, said the three/five minute time limits are already in the council rules, and Slutzky told Aegis staff member David Anderson he has relaxed them in the past when only a handful of people signed up to speak, which is typically the case.

Speakers “started to abuse the privilege and dragged their comments out for more than 20 minutes,” Slutzky explained via email, stating that council members agreed the rules should be “consistently enforced” after hearing concerns from people in the audience at meetings and those watching online or on television.

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Councilman Mike Perrone stressed during the Nov. 21 council meeting where the time limit issue was discussed that council members all take “very seriously” the concept that “freedom of speech in this country is sacrosanct.”

“There is a difference between government restricting speech in order to quiet dissent and restricting speech as a practical matter in order to ensure that others have the opportunity to be heard as well,” Perrone said.

It is our belief, however, that the only limit on speaking at a council meeting should be that the speaker not disparage individuals, be they council members or anyone else. That’s a simple standard of decorum that is appropriate in any setting.

Any limit on time, moreover, is being imposed by rules set by council members to convenience themselves, not ensure everyone gets to speak. It’s been our experience in the past that when a lot of people sign up to speak at a council meeting, they invariably show courtesy toward others waiting behind them and get to the point.

There also exists a current ban on people being able to speak about legislation on the night the council passes it. This rule also smacks of abridging free speech and the right to seek redress and also should be done away with poste-haste.

Remember this: The current council president has made the point many times that being a council member is “not a part-time position” in terms of any written document that says so.

With this in mind, council members shouldn’t become part-time listeners, either.

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