The First Amendment to the United States Constitution grants every American freedom of speech. That right extends to public meetings, where citizens are encouraged to address their elected officials.
But when does that right cross the line of civility? And what can government officials do if it does? That's an issue the Bay County Commission is wrestling with.
For months, Captain Gary Wayne Beck of Panama City Beach has attended every commission meeting and never failed to approach the podium during the public participation portion. Citizens are allowed three minutes to address the board on any topic.
Beck says he is a captain in the Merchant Marine and inventor with three patents – for an asteroid defense system and machines to produce energy and clean up oil spills – and has pleaded with commissioners to "get me to the next government individual" so he can use his inventions to "save the planet."
Sometimes Beck rails against the media, the government or the clock that keeps track of his time at the podium. But it's his references to guns and veiled threats that have made commissioners uncomfortable and caused citizens to leave the room on at least three occasions.
"I'm one vote, one man and one rifle," Beck said at a February meeting. Two months later, he threatened to "remove anyone with ‘honorable' in front of their name" if they didn't respond to his pleas for assistance.
Beck has accused the commissioners of spreading misinformation about him and sending "goons" and "human tanks" to destroy him.
"I see it just getting worse and worse and worse," Commissioner George Gainer told News 13. "It's a very difficult situation and we've all talked to Captain Beck and haven't gotten anywhere with him."
Beck fought a separate battle with the county over his Beech Street property. In July, after months of trying to convince Beck to clean it up – and two code enforcement board hearings that he failed to attend – commissioners held a public hearing and voted to clean the property and place a lien on it.
Beck went ballistic when cleanup crews arrived. "That's my world that they're eating!" Beck screamed. "They're tearing apart my bricks, my way of life… you call this justice?"
Since the code enforcement incident, Beck's meeting comments have centered less on his inventions (which he claims the county destroyed during the cleanup) and more on what he believes are attempts to paint him as a madman.
Gainer wants to strike a balance between allowing free speech, maintaining an orderly meeting and keeping everyone safe. "Because this is a public forum, we try to make sure that we maintain civility at all times [and] if we're going to err, we try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt," Gainer said.
Terrell Arline, County Attorney, told commissioners that Gainer has the authority to have a speaker sit down or be removed from the room if he or she becomes disruptive. The chairman suggested requiring Beck to submit his comments in writing and some commissioner have suggested he be banned from the podium.
But Cecile Scoon, a civil rights attorney and partner in the Peters & Scoon law firm, said attempting to ban a person from speaking would be a stretch. "It is possible to limit public discussion, but only on the most narrow means possible with a rational basis... a very, very high standard to prevent someone from talking ahead of time," Scoon said.
Scoon said Beck's use of "trigger words" – he has referred to the Connecticut school shooting, his rifle, and attending a gun show – doesn't constitute an immediate threat of violence. "It's kind of eerie, but the captain seems to be coming up to the line and not going across the line," Scoon said. "He doesn't say 'I'm going to use my gun' [and] he doesn't say 'I feel like doing anything similar'... he's just mentioning them sort of on the side."
Scoon said advances in weapon technology and evidence that mental illness is a factor in mass tragedies could mean it's time to redefine the parameters of free speech in public forums. The prudent thing to do is have security in place and be ready to respond if there is a problem, Scoon said.
For now, it appears commissioners have little choice but to allow Captain Beck to exercise his constitutional right.