• Allan Classen

Snipers take aim at democracy

I’ve heard it said that the diametrically opposed Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan organizations operated by similar bylaws. Members made motions, took turns speaking their piece and then resolved differences by majority vote. Americans of all stripes are steeped in the fundamentals of democracy.

Or so I thought.

Neighborhood associations in recent years have “made space at the table” for folks who think democracy is a rigged game incapable of addressing today’s challenges. Taking a vote is no longer assumed to reflect a desire to be fair, open and committed to the best result for all.

I have come to revere certain prerequisites to democracy: free speech, open meetings and the free press. But I now realize that some see these as tired clichés supplanted by a new set of “best practices.” Social media apps teach us that one can concoct a screen name and defame freely without being identified, which some take as their inalienable right.

A woman introducing herself as a new neighborhood resident participated in her first Northwest District Association meeting via Zoom last month. Two days later she wrote a 550-word email loaded with insults and defamation, naming names, and then sent it to the committee, the board of directors and the city agency administering neighborhood association services.

I followed up with my own email to the same sources describing how off-base I considered her action. She was surprised that I had somehow gotten her email address and she insisted that I not report on her poison-pen missive.

I do not know her background or knowledge of organizational norms of protocol. But the NWDA president, an attorney with a major local law firm, should have been familiar enough with matters of public meetings and First Amendment protections. Nevertheless, he advised me not to print anything because the woman clearly did not intend to be quoted.

Apparently, I did not get the note from her mother excusing her from responsibility for her words or actions. I would not have been offended merely by a newcomer speaking out of turn, but this was like a first-grader dressing down the principal on the first day of school. She knew too much about the lines of authority to be excused for naiveté.

Wielding power and influence, even at the primary level of a neighborhood meeting, entails accountability; a duty to identify oneself and stand behind one’s words. We expect no less from anyone in public or private life, for that matter. The presumption that others conduct themselves by high standards while upholding none themselves is the essence of hypocrisy.

Throughout military history, the deepest loathing has been reserved for snipers. They mete out lethal injury while remaining hidden from view and largely impervious to return fire. While social media “snipers” do not kill, they earn the same type of disrespect.

I suppose those who hide behind walls of anonymity would also like to get the real news, to know what’s going on in their world and to understand the motivations of the players. Such insights, while seldom shared in official proclamations, may emerge in the words of critics, but then only if readers know something of the speakers’ character, affiliations and track record.

Gaining standing in any community involves being honest about one’s role and intentions and willingness to listen before jumping to conclusions. We earn the right to criticize by accepting criticism.

A few tips to all for next time: There is a way to “go off the record.” It requires making prior arrangements with a reporter, presumably after establishing a level of trust that the pledge will be honored. And the news media in America are not licensed by the state, nor do they need permission to disseminate news.

No one has to study public meetings law or the First Amendment before engaging in public affairs. You can be schooled along the way.


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