Tuesday’s Mitchell County Board of Supervisors meeting started with a bit of controversy, when a member of the public got up before the meeting and persuaded those in attendance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The action prompted one of the supervisors to leave the room during the saying of the pledge, and afterwards the county attorney chided the board chair for letting the meeting get out of control.
An audience member then says they were just “exercising their first amendment rights” by asking everyone to say the pledge.
Here, we break down what happened, and what the First Amendment actually says, and what Iowa Law says about how public meetings should be conducted:
As Tuesday’s board meeting was about to begin, a member of the public got up and persuaded those in attendance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
When members of the audience stood, board member Stan Walk began to protest, stating that the audience members do not run the meetings. Walk then left the room while the members of the public continued reciting the pledge.
After the pledge was over Supervisor Walk returned, and County Attorney Mark Walk addressed the board chair Steve Smolik, saying “You’re the chairman, you’re in charge here, and you don’t let someone else take control of your meeting.”
Smolik replied, “But the meeting hasn’t started yet.”
Walk then replied “If [the board] wants to have a pledge of allegiance, that’s fine. But you’re the chair, you’re in charge, take a motion, vote on it, then decide what to do. I sent you that email, you’re just trying to play games.”
The email Walk referred to was one sent four days prior to the meeting, where County Attorney Walk emailed all three supervisors and the Mitchell County Sheriff requesting that the issue of holding a pledge be put on the minutes, discussed in an open meeting and then voted on.
County Attorney Walk’s request went unheeded – the issue of holding a pledge was not put on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
A community member asked the question of holding a pledge at a previous board meeting, where Supervisor Stan Walk had expressed he was not in favor of having the Pledge because he does not believe the line “justice for all” is accurate in America.
The board had made no motion to approve or deny adding the Pledge to board meetings.
An audience member then says they were just “exercising their first amendment rights”.
After a brief silence, Attorney Walk said that Smolik’s actions will “tear the board apart, tear the community apart and tear the county apart.”
Another audience member added “If the Pledge of Allegiance is controversial, we have a heck of a big problem.”
County Attorney Mark Walk turned, apparently surprised by the claim, saying “You don’t think the Pledge of Allegiance is controversial? You don’t? Okay, that’s fine. I’m not against it, I’m not saying that.”
According to the National Constitution Center, the Pledge of Allegiance has in fact been quite controversial, and has been the subject of Supreme Court legal battles dating back to the 1940s when in was first introduced into schools. Much of the controversy has stemmed from the words “Under God,” and whether or not non-Christians should have to participate in the saying of it.
Before anymore arguing could ensue, Board chair Smolik then interrupted and officially started the meeting.
What the First Amendment says
One of the audience members citied “their first amendment rights” as to why they should be able to say the pledge at the public meeting. Here’s what the First Amendment actually says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
As it is written, the First Amendment doesn’t actually give someone the right to “free speech”. It just says that Congress can’t pass laws that limit what you say.
However, American jurisprudence has long held that during public meetings, the government may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech as long as those restrictions are content-neutral and are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.
In other words, they can impose time limits, they can chose when and if you may speak and they can keep you on topic, but they can’t silence one side of an argument and only listen to another.
What Iowa law says
Iowa Code Chapter 21 lays out who, what, when and how public meetings are to be held in Iowa.
Chapter 21.7 says “Nothing in [Chapter 21] shall prevent a governmental body from making and enforcing reasonable rules for the conduct of its meetings to assure those meetings are orderly, and free from interference or interruption by spectators.”
In other words, anyone found to be disrupting or hindering a governmental meeting can be removed in a reasonable fashion. Further, nowhere in the law does it say that governmental meetings have to allow public comments.
So according to the law, it’s up to the Board to decide whether or not Tuesday’s incident was disrupting, and whether or not a pledge should be held.
But what do you think? Was the audience out of line by initiating a pledge at the beginning of the meeting? Should the pledge be recited at all during governmental meetings?
A video posted to Al Winters’s Facebook page surfaced after the meeting, showing parts of the incident:
Mitchell County Board of Supervisors Weekly Meeting, Osage, IA Date: January 8, 2019Just moments before the Regular Weekly Meeting was to begin Mitchell County resident, Russ Brandau, asked for those present to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. As those in attendance rose, Mitchell County Supervisor Stanley Walk attempted to stop Mr. Brandau. Seeing the crowd rising Supervisor Walk left the room. He stood separated from the room full of people and did not participate in any way. After the Pledge, Stanley Walk entered the room and stood by Mitchell County Attorney, Mark Walk. Attorney Walk then lectured the chair of the Board of Supervisors, Steve Smolik, accusing him of "playing games" by allowing the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited. Smolik explained that the meeting had NOT been called to order. Mark Walk continued to lecture Supervisor Smolik calling him "unprofessional" and claiming this action (reciting the Pledge) would divide the board and the county. Near the end of the tape County Attorney Mark Walk turns around to have an exchange with me stating that the Pledge of Allegiance is "controversial". He even attempts to get me to agree with him that the Pledge is controversial. Watch the video for yourself.
Posted by Al Winters for Mitchell County Supervisor on Tuesday, January 8, 2019