City's orders contradict right to speak out

Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009

Residents of Kenai's MAPS neighbor-

hood are upset over the city council's recent decision on a controversial zoning issue.

As upset as those residents are, the rest of our community should be outraged by actions taken by the city administration to restrict freedom of speech by Kenai residents.

As the issue has played out over the past few months, residents in the affected neighborhood have been posting large, neon-pink signs protesting the rezone. City administrators initially called one of the homeowners and told her the signs didn't comply with city code, but backed off the issue when better judgement prevailed.

However, since the city council approved the rezone in early April, City Manager Rick Koch said letters have been sent to residents ordering them to remove the signs.

The city administration is out of line.

Freedom of speech is the most basic tenant of our democracy, and clearly, signs expressing opposition to government action are protected under the U.S. Constitution and the Alaska Constitution.

Indeed, Alaska constitutional case law states: "A function of free speech under the American system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger."

Case law goes on to state: "This nation is most likely to flourish by selecting direction from a multitude of voices engaged in vigorous debate rather than from authoritative selection by government officials."

In other words, for our community to be thriving and vibrant, the people need their voice, and need their voice to be heard. And if that voice conflicts with the government's message, that's when we will have real progress.

Whether you agree with the city council on rezoning land along the Kenai Spur Highway or are sympathetic to residents who worry about the impacts to their neighborhood, we should all agree on this: As citizens, our most basic and most important right is to be able to openly question and criticize our government and to protest when we feel our leaders have made a bad decision.

The administration of the city of Kenai needs to rethink its actions regarding this protest. Rather than attempting to squelch the public debate, our leaders would do far better to carefully listen to and address our concerns.

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