Following the report by Texas Scorecard detailing how an Amarillo man was arrested for clapping at a City Council meeting, State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) penned a letter to Mayor Ginger Nelson expressing his concern over their action.
His letter follows:
Dear Mayor Nelson,
I recently came across multiple stories in the press regarding the open meeting of the Amarillo City Council held on the evening of April 3, 2018. I also watched the video feed of the meeting posted online. While I am aware that my constituency does not include any Amarillo residents, I am compelled to speak out against the apparent abuse of power I witnessed.
As I am sure you are well aware, the cause for this letter centers around the public comment portion of the meeting that led to the arrest of a citizen. First, I was astonished to learn that a governmental entity in the State of Texas has a policy prohibiting even limited spontaneous reaction to public commentary. For that policy to be expounded to the point of arresting a citizen of the public for clapping and failing to stand at the request of the presiding officer causes grave concerns for the constitutional protections guaranteed to the public.
As elected officials, we must never forget who is truly responsible for governing. The citizenry ultimately is the government, and you and I are solely representatives of their rights and wishes. Should we forget this fundamental principle of American political leadership, we have failed to grasp the full weight of our oaths of office. We must always remember the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees protections for the “freedom of speech…right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It must not go without mentioning that there are limitations to speech. When a meeting gets out of hand and disruption occurs, it is the duty of the presiding officer to regain control so the people’s business may resume. The City of Amarillo Code of Ordinances, Section 2-2-1, Subsection (h) states, “…the members of the Council must preserve order and decorum, and no member of the City Council or any citizen shall by conversation, or otherwise, delay or interrupt the proceedings or peace of the City Council, or disturb any member while speaking, or refuse to obey the orders of the presiding officer of the City Council.”
To any reasonable onlooker, the only portion of the ordinance to be violated is the part that requires submission to orders of the presiding officer. No disruption occurs from spontaneous reaction, and certainly no speaker was disturbed or disrespected. Furthermore, two specific members of the public were singled out even though many people violated the so-called “clapping policy”. Your requests for individuals to stand and publicly proclaim allegiance to a policy or be removed was concerning at best and an absolute abuse of power at worst.
The concerns do not end with prevention of expression. According to an article that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Earlier in the same meeting, Nelson told the audience, ‘You can all clap if you want,’ after the council issued a proclamation on child abuse awareness.” You took it a step further and actually regulated speech by allowing certain applause to be used.
Finally, I serve on the Government Transparency and Operation Committee which has express jurisdiction of policy regarding the Texas Open Meetings Act. I will encourage my fellow committee members to look into this matter and determine if any violations have occurred. I will also be exploring the idea of whether any legislation needs to be filed to prevent so-called “clapping policies” in local government meetings in the future.
In the meantime, I simply ask you to consider your actions and the unintentional consequences they may have on public political discourse in our state. I would also encourage you and the Amarillo City Council to reconsider policies that greatly reduce harmless expression.
Thank you for your service to the people of the State of Texas and City of Amarillo.
Texas House District 94