Something is seriously wrong with the public speaking format used by the St. Louis County Council. Either Chairwoman Rita Heard Days must pay closer attention to the misinformation and hate speech spewed by speakers in a taxpayer-funded forum and stop their abuses, or the council should vote to end open-mic sessions to stop them from being used to spread lies and incite bigotry.
Richmond Heights resident Jeffrey Schaefer was the last of 18 speakers signed up for the open-mic part of Tuesday’s regular meeting. It’s typically a time when council members can be seen tuning out, flipping through paperwork or checking their phones for messages. Schaefer opened his remarks with a quote from Adolf Hitler, then spent the next three minutes engaging in an unrestrained anti-Semitic rant that blamed Jews for America’s history of slavery.
An attentive chairwoman would have stopped Schaefer halfway through his first sentence. But Days allowed Schaefer to talk and talk and talk. When he was done, she moved on to other business. It’s not clear if she even listened to what Schaefer had just said, or whether she noticed that council member Ernie Trakas had walked out.
About another 45 minutes passed as Days worked through other agenda items. Finally, council member Lisa Clancy spoke up: “I want the record to reflect that I am disgusted by the anti-Semitic comments we heard earlier in this meeting.”
Trakas agreed, saying the First Amendment “doesn’t protect speech that incites. And that speech, Madame Chair, was as close to inciting as you can get. That’s why I got up and left.”
Days tried to defend herself, saying she “did not have a pre-idea … that this was the kind of speech that was coming before this council. But clearly, clearly, I am not sitting here supporting anti-Semitic rhetoric. I am not supporting slavery rhetoric.”
This is hardly the first time Days has let speakers and audience members abuse these meetings to spout hate speech and misinformation. In August she did nothing to stop audience members from jeering remarks by officials. She let public-forum speakers assert, without challenge, that the coronavirus was a hoax and that masks don’t work.
In October, YouTube banned use of its platform for County Council meetings after Days repeatedly let speakers spew misinformation. Instead of asserting tighter control, Days simply opted for a different hosting platform.
Just like Trakas, this newspaper supports the responsible exercise of First Amendment rights. Schaefer and his misguided ilk have every right to spout their ridiculous beliefs in their own forums. In fact, Schaefer expounds at length on a video website, with observations ranging between unintelligible stream-of-consciousness blather to unrestrained hate speech.
But Days and the council have the ability to stop these open-mic sessions — and they should, so people like Schaefer don’t have a chance to amplify their twisted views at taxpayer expense.0 comments