By Brandi Makuski
One of the most basic and cherished cornerstones of this nation is the free exchange of ideas. Whether you’re a regular citizen walking down the street, an elected official or a member of the media, it’s a right every citizen has, either at birth or naturalization. There’s just no America without it.
A new city resolution is scheduled for discussion, and possible approval, at Monday night’s Common Council meeting which, on its face, appears to contradict the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The resolution formally condemns “acts of hostility, whether verbal, written or physical.”
No one can find fault with any governmental body taking a stand against specific acts of harassment, libelous or hate speech, or violent behavior — which is why our local, state and federal governments already have laws in place dealing with such behavior, outlined with some specificity.
But the City Council’s proposed resolution fails to provide a definition for what it means by “hostility”. In fact, there’s no supporting documents whatsoever to the resolution. It stands alone as a single page in the agenda packet.
A citizen’s right to satirize, to criticize, to condemn actions of another via speech or the printed word — they can all be considered “hostile”, depending on whom you ask.
A resolution is one step shy of an ordinance enforceable by police; and whether our local elected officials admit it or not, it sets the tone for future legislation within the city. While “resolution” is not defined in the city ordinances, it is defined by the state legislature. According to the Wisconsin State Legislature glossary, a resolution is:
A formal statement of opinion or intention passed by a legislative body. Resolutions in the Wisconsin Legislature can be proposed to both houses through a joint resolution. Proposals to amend the Constitution, to create, amend, or repeal a legislative rule, and to set the Legislature’s session calendar are also made by resolution.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hostile as: “of or relating to an enemy; not friendly, having or showing unfriendly feelings; unpleasant or harsh.”
By comparison, Dictionary.com lists the definition as: “a hostile state, condition, or attitude; enmity; antagonism; unfriendliness; a hostile act; opposition or resistance to an idea, plan, project, etc.”
By those definitions, anything could be considered hostile: honking your horn in anger because the guy in the next lane cuts you off; union negotiations with the county, city or school district; or writing an open letter disputing the actions of an elected official.
A mammogram is certainly also quite unpleasant; and waiting in a grocery store line behind a oblivious parent whose child is tearing the candy display to shreds is anything but friendly. Some people enjoy a good Polish joke; others find it offensive, and might identify it as hostile.
These are ridiculous examples, of course, and that’s kind of the point; you can’t legislate taste. Unless “hostility” is clearly defined, it’s meaning is subject to one’s taste, making it a meaningless standard.
Will this resolution grant credibility to the idea that anyone can claim to have been the victim of hostility? If so, what does it mean for our community? Can we call the police to report someone has just called us a bad name? Or do we complain to a City Council member?
There are just too many options for creating larger problems with this resolution. Something so incredibly generalized not only has high potential to increase the workload of local law enforcement, but also makes it impossible to apply equally because the definition is so subjective.
Regardless of a government’s size, it does not recognize emotional hemophilia; it is still ruled by laws and policies. Clear definitions are required to avoid legal ambiguity in protecting the city’s interests — it’s one reason we elect a city attorney every four years.
With this City Council, clear definitions are so vital because in the past 20 months, they’ve collectively shown a habit of being greatly subjective.
Current members of the Council can’t agree on the purpose of the city’s contingency fund — nor is it defined in the city ordinances. While some believe contingency should only be utilized in an emergency, others, including Mayor Mike Wiza, view the city’s contingency fund as one to be used for “unforeseen expenses”.
A recent meeting on a proposal to re-stripe Stanley St. also brought into question the meaning of the word “broken” when referencing the roadway. Many residents at that meeting publicly stated they didn’t see the road as “broken”, so there was nothing to fix and no change was needed. But some members of the Council at that meeting said they believed a road designed only for cars and trucks met their definition of “broken”.
The discussion of whether or not the city should approve such a resolution is not one that should be taken lightly. This resolution was added to the agenda late — due to “editing”, according to Wiza — just before opening weekend of gun deer hunting season. Constituents haven’t had enough time to absorb, consider the options and arrive at an opinion before tonight’s City Council.
The resolution has more potential to cause harm than do good. This resolution comes dangerously close to attempting regulation of free speech and free press; for the sake of both, any vote on the resolution should be postponed.