DuPage County board seeking legal opinion on public comments after 'Mexican' remark

 
 
Updated 12/10/2019 5:13 PM

DuPage officials have asked the state's attorney's office to weigh in on what, if anything, can be done to discourage public speakers from making "repetitious, profane, discriminatory or irrelevant comments" at county board meetings.

Board members on Tuesday talked about whether rules should be established for the public comment portion of their meetings. The issue was put on the agenda by board member Elizabeth Chaplin, who raised it because a resident recently blamed a zoning problem on a "Mexican" family in her neighborhood.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's kind of unfortunate that we have to talk about this," Chaplin said. But the Downers Grove Democrat said it appears people have been "emboldened" to say things they never would have said before.

During a meeting last month, a woman complained to the board that her neighbors have diesel trucks and equipment in front of their house and "a lot of people" living in their basement. "I'm not going to be (politically) correct," she said. "They're Mexican."

On Tuesday, board member Robert Larsen said, "We were all bothered by the comments that we heard last time."

But Larsen said the woman was "appropriately rebuked" during the meeting by Chairman Dan Cronin.

Therefore, the Wheaton Republican said he's concerned about the board taking action that could have a chilling effect on free speech.

"The First Amendment is there not just to protect speech we like," Larsen said, "but even speech that we find offensive."

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Chaplin said she's willing to work with the state's attorney's office to create reasonable rules.

"We certainly don't want to limit somebody's First Amendment rights," she said.

Meanwhile, board member Pete DiCianni suggested a "code of decorum" that could be posted on the board room wall.

The Elmhurst Republican said the sign would simply ask speakers to refrain from profanity and ethnic slurs "as a common courtesy." While it wouldn't be enforceable, DiCianni said it would "at least set the tone for the type of decorum that we like to see."

But board member Tim Elliott said the "vast, vast, vast majority" of people who offer public comment do so respectfully and productively.

He said he's concerned about the board responding to something that is "truly the exception."

"I have sat on public boards for close to 10 years," the Glen Ellyn Republican said. "Less than a handful of times I've experienced anything even remotely close to like what we had a couple of weeks ago. So I would just urge us as a body to not always try to legislate for the extreme."

Instead, Elliott said the board should recognize that the majority of residents are serious when they speak at a meeting and "are respectful and are trying to petition us in good faith."

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