Town Hall Meetings: Freedom of Speech or Free for All?
Town hall meetings go way back in the history of our country. They go as far back as the colonial days in New England.
"In these town meetings citizens, and the officials they elected to represent them, would engage each other in a discussion about issues facing their community. Town hall meetings were the place that democracy happened in New England,” says Joe Morris, Director of the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics.
That style of democracy has not happened much in Northwestern Pennsylvania lately. Congressman Mike Kelly is not a big fan of face-to-face town hall meetings. . He hasn't hosted one since 2015.
"One of the ones that I think we did, we said it just didn't work. We had a veteran town hall. We think we had 20-25 people show up. We used every means available to get that message out there,” Kelly said.
Kelly will accept invitations to speak before groups of people. Last month, he spoke before a friendly audience at Erie's Lord Corporation. He also answered questions. Kelly prefers to hold something called a telephone town hall. His staff can dial-in as many as 60 to 70-thousand constituents. The congressman says it's efficient and safe for everyone.
"Folks can sit in their home, have a restroom that close by that they're comfortable with, have their own cup of coffee or refreshment that they want, don't have to waste any money on gas. More importantly, most of the people we represent, what's really just hard for them, is when they go to a place and there's total chaos,” Kelly said.
Last month, Kelly resisted the call for a face-to-face public town meeting on the issue of school safety. He, instead, met privately with a group of Erie County high school students who requested the town hall. The meeting was civil. No adults, and no news cameras, were allowed inside.
"I feel that we did, in some respects, reach a common ground in a way that can help our community and help the country,” said Alec Henry, Harborcreek HS Senior.
Congressman Tom Reed is the exact opposite of Mike Kelly when it comes to face-to-face public town hall meetings. Reed represents the Southern Tier of New York State, and, like Kelly, is a Republican. Reed held a public town hall meeting at the Gerry Rodeo Conference Center, In Chautauqua County, on April 14. It was the first of three town halls that day.
"I believe in them. I believe this is the true form of democracy, where you can actually engage on a conversation with the people I represent. I say it often, to represent people you've got to listen to people,” Reed said.
Reed talked about a variety of issues with his constituents. It was evident by some signs in the audience that the congressman was not held in high esteem by everyone. Two Chautauqua County Sheriff deputies stood by at each side of the room. The discussion got lively at times, but the meeting never got out of hand.
"I've been to other town halls where it was a little more hostile than it was today. This was very mild today compared to some of the others. And I do give him credit for coming here because we don't all agree,” said Sally Myers, of Jamestown.
"You can yell and scream at us. We will stand there. We will take it. I've got 11 older brothers and sisters. I've been called every name in the book,” says Reed.
Reed says he does hold telephone town halls from time to time. But they don't compare to the face-to-face meetings. He remembers everything from all his public town halls, and brings those memories back to Washington with him.
"And I always try to keep that in the back of my mind whenever I'm making a vote yes or no. Who is this going to impact? And 9 times out of 10, almost 10 out of 10 times, I have a face in the back of my mind from these town halls that we've done,” Reed said.
"And that's one thing where I really do respect our Congressman, is that he gives you access,” said Justin Hubbard, of Jamestown. “This is how democracy should work."