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Civil Discourse and Intimidation in Menlo Park

Original post made by Diane Hart on Oct 29, 2006

Civil society in Menlo Park took an ugly turn for the worse recently, setting the City on a downward path that, if uncorrected, will leave all of us much the poorer. The presenting issue was the recent petition drive regarding the so-called Derry project. But the implications for Menlo Park far transcend this project.

To put it plainly: the developers apparently hired squads of young men to intimidate residents who were carrying the petitions, as well as the Menlo Park voters who were signing them. These petition opponents, alerted by a well-coordinated communications network, appeared in teams whenever and wherever petition-circulators began to talk with voters. Their aggressive, in-your-face tactics frankly scared the mainly-older, often-female volunteers who were circulating the petitions. More often than not, these civic-minded citizens simply fled the scene out of fear. I myself abandoned efforts to collect signatures outside Trader Joes because I felt intimidated by their aggressive tactics. Other volunteers experienced the same or worse.

The performance of the Menlo Park Police Department—seemingly backed by the City Attorney's office—in the face of these assaults on civil liberties was inadequate. The police treated confrontations between lawful petitioners and their harassers more like domestic disturbances than what they were—violations of First Amendment rights that would have been obvious to any high school social studies student. The police failed to enforce a sensible plan worked out by stores such as Safeway to give alternating blocks of time to the two sides. They failed to provide physical protection for petition circulators who felt threatened. They failed to respond to complaints of stalking-like behavior. They failed even to return citizen's phone calls.

The response from the developers might be that their mobile squads were merely exercising their own rights to free speech. Had they confined themselves to discussing their position and handing out "rescind your signature" postcards, this argument might hold water. To their credit, stores with public spaces, like Safeway, made generous allowance for the developers' representatives to present their views. But a civil and respectful expression of opposing viewpoints was not their goal. Their goal was to disrupt the petition drive and prevent petition circulators from being heard, not to spread enlightenment on the Derry project.

Political operatives have a name for what went on in Menlo Park during the petition drive: They call what we experienced "'blocking tactics"— a polite name for ugly behavior. We are told that such aggressive tactics are becoming the new norm, and that we should expect to see more of it in the future.

To avoid this grim future for civil discourse in Menlo Park, our City officials will have to fill the policy vacuum that so clearly exists, and provide strong guidance to our police regarding the difference between quelling a potential disturbance and protecting constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Our police, in turn, will have to be much more energetic and effective in enforcing those rights.

And as for the developers who provoked this civic melt-down in Menlo Park? If a Derry referendum appears on the ballot, voters may not want to reward them for their role in creating an intolerant and abusive atmosphere in our once-civil society, and will vote accordingly.

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Diane Hart, the author of 12 social studies textbooks, serves on the Board of Directors of the National Council for Social Studies and was Chair of the NCSS Task Force on Citizenship Education.

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