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At Utah inland port meetings, a tooting whistle is not an argument

Salt Lake police and Utah Highway Patrol troopers force protesters out of the Chamber of Commerce Building at 175 E. 400 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. The protest over the Utah Inland Port began at the City-County Building and moved to the Chamber of Commerce Building where the port authority meets.
Salt Lake police and Utah Highway Patrol troopers force protesters out of the Chamber of Commerce Building at 175 E. 400 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. The protest over the Utah Inland Port began at the City-County Building and moved to the Chamber of Commerce Building where the port authority meets.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The First Amendment never was intended to be pretty.

Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s former governor and, most recently, Republican congressional representative, remembers a particularly raucous town hall meeting years ago that was dominated by a left-leaning group intent on pressing a point about health care.

As he recalled it for the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards on Monday, the meeting lasted 4½ hours which, he said, was about as long as it took to begin getting somewhere.

“The first hour was horribly unproductive, second hour more productive, third hour actually quite productive, fourth hour you’re in the golden hour,” he said.

Not having been there, it’s hard for me to know whether the golden hour was a real 14-karat version or just the fool’s gold that comes from exhaustion. Sanford said he made it clear his attitude going into the meeting was “we’ll go until you don’t want to talk anymore.”

That sounds like the political equivalent of a parent letting a small child cry himself to sleep.

Truth is, most public bodies don’t have the luxury of enduring to the golden hour. For the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, which exists to do more than take public comments, it may be said with a high degree of certainty at this point that a bit of silence would be golden — for the board and the public it is trying to serve.

The board has yet to hold a meeting free from protesters trying to shut things down. Last week, dozens of them wore surgical masks to hide the whistles they were endlessly blowing. Utah Highway Patrol troopers had trouble locating the sources of the noise in order to escort offenders out the door.

That was the first board meeting since July, when protesters stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building, resulting in clashes with police. That meeting, too, was in the news again this week, as 10 protesters were charged in 3rd District Court with counts varying from rioting to criminal trespass. Nine face felonies. Four more were charged in Salt Lake City Justice Court with misdemeanor rioting charges.

As that meeting devolved, mischief became a tactic on all sides. A gas and oil lobbyist tried to keep a Deseret News reporter from doing her job, apparently under the theory that problems would go away if people weren’t told about them.

Chaos invites finger-pointing, so it is no surprise that protesters claim police were unreasonably heavy-handed. Authorities counter by claiming the protesters caused $7,000 in damage to the building and likely contributed to human feces and urine found in various places inside.

The Constitution’s First Amendment aims to put American politicians in a necessarily uncomfortable spotlight at times. People have the right to express their disdain for official acts and to criticize without punishment. Together with state open meetings requirements, this gives leaders few places to hide, and with good reason. This is part of what defines American freedom and accountability.

Years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” We can proudly call our leaders finks. That does not, however, give people license to shut down a public meeting.

The Inland Port Authority should not be above criticism. It aims to set up a distribution center along the Wasatch Front that would accept foreign goods via truck, air and rail. Its establishment has led to legal challenges from Salt Lake City, and some worry it will pollute the environment.

But a nation that values free speech also values civil processes. Protesters may organize campaigns, back candidates and rally voters during election season. In Utah, they can organize petition drives for initiatives that outlaw inland ports. They can buy billboards, organize through the internet and use many other ways to argue for support. They can take legal action.

If these don’t work, they have little choice but to keep trying. Democracy grants no privilege to those whose ideas fail to gain traction.

Public bodies, meanwhile, allow public comment periods. But when protesters try to shut down meetings, they rob the public, whose business is being conducted. They also can obscure official actions. While protesters carried on this week, the board held elections and selected new leadership.

Politicians may have the patience to wait for the “golden hour” of communication during town hall meetings. But for the Utah Inland Port Authority, that hour may never come.

We get it. Some people don’t like the port. Somewhere, good arguments may exist in their favor. But, enough already. No matter how loud or at what pitch, a tooting whistle is not an argument.