Let’s applaud the push for civil debate

We’re fans of the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County — and even more so after learning about the League’s latest project.

In a Viewpoint published on Tuesday’s Voices page, the San Luis Obispo County chapter of the League announced a new initiative that, in our view, is one of the most important the League could tackle: Promoting civil discourse at public meetings.

“You will soon see us at public meetings urging calm, polite and respectful speech and behavior,” League President Marilee Hyman wrote.

That’s excellent news. If you’ve ever watched the League in action at a candidates’ forum, you know its members are pleasant, polite and scrupulously fair — but if the crowd gets unruly, they can speak volumes with a single look. We suspect the League’s mere presence at city council and Board of Supervisors meetings could have a calming effect.

The League’s new project is in the development stage. Among other activities, the organization is working on a brochure that includes guidelines on public discourse; it received a grant of $1,800 from the Board of Supervisors to help with the work. Other components of the project will be announced later.

This could not have come at a better time.

Over the past several months, we’ve heard reports of booing and heckling from the audience; personal comments directed at individuals that have little or nothing do to with the subject at hand; unwillingness to follow time limits; and argumentative, disrespectful comments directed at staff. We’ve also heard that some members of the public, who used to be regular participants in the public process, now feel so intimidated they no longer want to show up at public meetings.

When that happens, democracy is in trouble.

Certainly, everyone has a right to speak his or her mind at the podium. Everyone has the right to mobilize supporters to show up en masse. And everyone has the right to question and, if necessary, challenge information presented at public meetings.

But that can be done with decorum, and in such a way that opponents don’t feel bullied into silence.

We commend the League of Women Voters for raising this issue, especially as we head into what’s shaping up to be a divisive election season. We look forward to the League’s “campaign” for civil discourse.