Free speech lives to see another day (or week) in Schuylkill County!
On Wednesday, the County Commissioners did not pass a new rule that would have severely limited free speech during their public meetings.
When the agenda item was raised by Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington, Commissioner George Halcovage made a motion to table it until next week. Hetherington seconded that motion and all three, including Commissioner Gary Hess, voted to take it up again next Wednesday.
Schuylkill County Commissioners Hold Off on New Public Comments Rules
On Tuesday night, our report on the new rules being proposed for the public comments made during Schuylkill County Commissioners caught more than a few eyes.
The rules would have required participants during virtual meetings to submit comments in writing that they wanted to make. But they had to do so the day prior to the meeting. And there was no guarantee they’d be read or if the commentator would be allowed to speak.
That was just one of the numerous questionable or downright illegal portions of the new rules that were clearly pushed by Hetherington.
Some other highlights of the rules include:
- Hetherington being allowed to determine if comments crossed an arbitrary line he’d draw during meetings,
- A ban on media outlets or the public recording meetings, including recording them at home unless consent was given,
- A reduction in the amount of time a speaker is given,
- Requiring that groups of individual speakers appoint a spokesperson,
- And so many more …
For a full breakdown of the rules Hetherington and the Commissioners were supposed to vote on Wednesday, check out our full report: Schuylkill County Commissioners Attempting to Muzzle the Public with New Comment Rules
Our report was followed up by another news out, the Times-News in Lehighton. Their reporter followed up on the new rules with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association which said, essentially, the new rules were laughable, including the rule which attempted to block The Canary and others from recording the Zoom calls where the meetings are hosted.
You can read the Times-News report here: Schuylkill commissioners attempt to limit public comment
Hetherington Given an Earful
Despite the tabling of the motion to approve the new rules until next week, the unleashed public let the Commissioners, specifically Hetherington, have it on Wednesday for their attempt to silence the commoners.
“I think you guys are just scared of people telling the truth,” frequent commentator Doug Litwhiler, Ringtown, said prior to the motion being tabled.
Another regular during Public Comments is former Mount Carbon Mayor Jeff Dunkel. He said on Wednesday, “You sound like a dictator, Boots. It’s like a power trip. You’re not going to silence the taxpayers of Schuylkill County. It’s cowardly and it’s disgusting.”
But that was only the beginning. During the final Public Comment session of the meeting, Schuylkill Clerk of Courts Maria Casey chimed in on the new rules that had been tabled earlier.
“These crazy antics have to stop. I think we’re in the Fourth Reich and I’m not enjoying it,” Casey said. “You think you can bully us? You think you can act like this?”
Earlier in her comments, Casey suggested Hetherington could be a co-conspirator in what she calls the protection of Halcovage from any damage stemming from the allegations he’s facing.
And then Casey went where few go in their comparisons these days …
“You might be sporting a Hitler mustache, Boots, but you know what …,” she said, pausing for a second.
That’s when Hetherington jumped in to the conversation to stop her.
“Ms. Casey, please refrain from making slanderous remarks,” Hetherington said. “It’s part of the rules. Please stop doing that.”
She replied, “What rules? You didn’t pass them.”
“Ms. Casey, if you have information to pass on about the county … but stop making personal attacks and using slanderous remarks,” Hetherington said coming back at Casey.
“They’re only slanderous if they’re not true,” Casey returned.
Hetherington then turned to Schuylkill County Solicitor Al Marshall to put Casey in what Hetherington believed was her place. And that didn’t go over well with Casey.
Two lawyers fighting. Your opinion on that depends on your opinion of lawyers.
“Oh, he’s a good one to opine on ethics,” she zinged.
Hetherington interjected and told Casey to pipe down for a minute and then he handed the floor to Marshall who first uttered something inaudibly and then repeated, “We should stay on the subject. There’s no need to refer to the Fourth Reich and Hitler.”
“That motion,” Casey volleyed back, “is reminiscent of what Hitler would have done. He would …”
Hetherington again interjected and pleaded, “Ms. Casey, we just asked you to stop making public comments that are slanderous.”
The audio got a little garbled coming out of the courtroom but the next clear words you could here were again from Hetherington, yelling back, “You’re an attorney. Don’t you understand that?”
Casey then lectured Hetherington on his knowledge of the law and even mentioned The Canary brand by name regarding our or anyone’s right to record audio from public meetings. That was a point really hammered home in the Times-News article (link above).
She finished by saying, “No matter what, you’re not going to have your way here. If you want to keep running these meetings in an improper fashion, fine! But guess what. The public is now weighing in and we will continue to do so. You’re not going to stop us. We are going to weigh in and we’re going to speak our minds. And you’ll just have to get used to it.”
Here’s the audio of that exchange:
Listen to the first round of Public Comments here: