Do political "town halls" have rules?

Do political "town halls" have rules?

Do political "town halls" have rules?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 7 2009 6:17 PM

Step Away From the Microphone

Do political "town hall" meetings have rules?

Barack Obama at Shaker Heights High School
Barack Obama at Shaker Heights High School

During the August recess, select members of Congress are holding "town hall" meetings to discuss the president's plan for health care reform. Several recent such events have descended into chaos— even violence. Are there any rules that govern town hall meetings?

No. What politicians call "town halls" are really just informal gatherings for constituents to have their voices heard. There's no format that dictates who speaks when or for how long. If the issue being discussed is especially technical, like climate change, the politician might invite guest speakers to give presentations. If it's something more personal, like health care, they'll usually invite audience members to discuss their own experiences. The process is entirely up to the organizer. If someone gets rowdy, the moderator—in this case, the politician—is responsible for cooling them down. (They don't always succeed.) The only rules that limit behavior at town halls are capacity regulations—that's up to the fire marshal—and the usual laws against disorderly conduct, which differ by state. In Indiana, for example, disorderly conduct is defined as anyone who recklessly engages in fighting, makes unreasonable noise after being asked to stop, or disrupts a lawful assembly. Sometimes politicians will set ground rules: In 1982, for example, New York Mayor Ed Koch established guidelines for his "town hall" meetings, defining disorderly conduct as behavior that "materially prevents" people from hearing speakers or from being heard.

The term "town hall meeting" derives from the traditional "town meeting," which has been a form of local government in New England since the 1600s. (It's still practiced in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine.) At those meetings, held at least once a year, voters or their representatives gather to decide everything from the annual budget to government salaries to which roads require repaving. Unlike political town halls, town meetings are highly regimented, often according to Robert's Rules of Order. The proceedings are generally run by an elected moderator. In so-called "open town meetings," any registered voter can show up, speak, and vote on the day's business. In "representative town meetings," voters elect members to represent as a sort of small-scale legislature.

Each New England locale that carries on the "town meeting" tradition has its own decision-making process. When deciding a budget, for example, the moderator may open the floor for debate after reading each budget item. Under a slightly different set of rules, he will stop reading the items only if someone yells out, "Hold!" Votes may be tallied using a voice vote ("Yea" or "Nay"), a show of hands, or a secret ballot. In some settings, if you think the moderator has miscounted, you can stand up and say, "I doubt it," spurring a recount.

While political town halls generally follow a simple Q and A format, New England town meetings regulate what you can say and how you can say it. If you want to talk, you have to wait for the moderator to acknowledge you. Then you can speak only to the moderator, not to other members. You can't attack anyone personally—only their arguments, and even then, you can't refer to them by name. So if you hate John Doe's idea to replace all stop signs with yield signs, you can't say, "John Doe, I think you're crazy." You have to say something like "Mr. Moderator, I disagree with the proposal to replace all stop signs with yield signs."

There's generally a policeman present at old-school town meetings in case things get too heated. Massachusetts state law states, "If, after a warning from the presiding officer, a person persists in disorderly behavior, said officer may order him to withdraw from the meeting, and if he does not withdraw, may order a constable or any other person to remove him and confine him in some convenient place until the meeting is adjourned." Political town halls tend to have security, too—especially when the politician is a governor or presidential candidate. But, generally, the police function more like parking attendants than security guards.

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Explainer thanks Jacqueline Haas of Weston, Mass., Brian McNiff of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Lynda Tran of Gov. Tim Kaine's office.