Gagged Blount Residents Protest Proposal to Limit Public Input

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Maryville, Blount County (WVLT) - It's a fight for free speech. Several dozen Blount Countians stood in protest outside the county commission meeting Thursday night.

They say their right to free speech is being taken away. The controversy centers around a proposal by one commissioner to eliminate a three-minute public forum at county commission meetings, but protesters say they will not be silenced.

"I don't think it's too much to let a person speak three minutes before the whole commission," protester Barney Lowe said.

None of these people do... that's why they're protesting -- armed with bandannas, signs and strength.

"We are concerned about our freedoms and our liberties, and we're not going away," protester Harry Grothjahn said.

Though they said nothing, dozens packed the courthouse steps in an attempt to be heard. They stood silent, letting their actions speak for them.

"The bandanna represents the symbol of authority. And the authorities are trying to gag us," Grothjahn said.

On the agenda: discussion and possible action regarding public input on items not on the agenda. Usually, citizens can address the commission for three minutes at the beginning of the meeting about anything.

"It's always been there, and I don't see a point of taking it away," Lowe said.

Most say they need that time to help commissioners vote responsibly.

"We want them to start thinking about it before they're ready to vote on it," protester Linda King said.

But some commissioners say they can act more efficiently if they aren't using meeting time to listen to items that they aren't going to act on that night. So, In a vote of 7-4, the Intergovernmental Committee voted to discontinue that practice and refer citizens to subcommittees.

"They using the excuse, if we go to subcommittees, we'll get more action and I can tell ya, I've been to subcommittees and it hasn't produced any more action," King said.

Several spoke in favor of free speech hoping commissioners wouldn't act just yet.

"I'm afraid if this passes tonight, this is gonna be the first step in making us sit down and shut up, and you better watch Blount County, because we're going to lose a lot of our freedoms," King said.

Again, they didn't vote either way. They did, however, vote to send the proposal to an ad-hoc committee that will address the issue as well as a resolution regarding changes to the 'rules of order'.