Editorial: What happened to free speech?

The 7-0 approval of the town seal ordinance finally put to rest a long-standing issue that has come up during each of the last two municipal elections. Or does it?

In 2015, the Southington Republican Town Committee got their hands slapped for printing an insert called “The Official Town of Southington Election Guide” with the town seal predominantly at the top. The SRTC was warned not to do it again, but local Republicans already swept the elections. Then, in 2017, they ignored Hartford’s ruling and did it again, with every Republican on the ballot contributing to a similar insert with the town logo printed predominantly on the top of the front page. This time, voters weren’t fooled. Republicans lost their super majority on the Board of Education and lost control of the Town Council. As far as we know, there was no complaint filed in Hartford after the 2017 election.

Since the Democrats won the election, we watched this effort unfold to craft a new town policy about town seal usage. The Ordinance Committee sculpted wording to address the state’s demands that each town provide a town seal, register it with the Secretary of State, and leave it in the custody of the the Town Clerk under Section 7-101 of the Connecticut General Statutes.

Changes were debated in committee before being introduced to the Town Council in June. A public hearing about the ordinance was scheduled before the July 23 council meeting, and the changes quickly passed in a unanimous decision when nobody showed up to debate it at the public hearing.

The lack of public comment didn’t surprise us. How can you weigh in on something that’s never even been officially entered into the record? The wording wasn’t included on the notice of public hearing (although, to be fair, it did say that it was available on the town’s website). The new language wasn’t included in the notice of passage (once again the public was directed to the website). It wasn’t part of the minutes posted by the Ordinance Committee or the Town Council. In fact, the Ordinance Committee met every month from January through July but only published minutes for three of those meetings on the town website. Of course, the town isn’t required to publish minutes on the website. It’s more of a public service. Posting something on the website doesn’t make it official. The clerk remains the steward of all official paperwork and the town seal. That’s why it’s important to get stuff on the public record before a public hearing.

The new policy doesn’t seem to indicate who the changes affect, although we’re interpreting it to be an internal policy aimed at town employees and officials. That’s fine. After all, the first amendment restricts governments from making any laws to prohibit or abridge the freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Town Attorney Carolyn Futtner advised the council at the June 25 meeting that the town seal wasn’t trademarked or copyrighted. She also advised that the wording has no punitive provisions, and she felt it would have been better served as part of the ethics code. We agree.

Futtner referred to a packet with examples of how private companies and organizations shouldn’t use the seal, but we are not sure how the Town Council has any authority to pass a law that prohibits or abridges the freedom of speech with press, private companies, or private organizations. This public domain symbol is as much a part of speech as saying “The Town of Southington.” We think enforcing the ethics code—along with existing state and federal laws—is the best way to police unethical behavior of employees, officials, candidates, and committees (like the SRTC). We think this was a waste of time and resources to pass a bad law with no teeth.

To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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