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Bad behavior is not new, but the prevalence of incivility seems a rising tide in the public arena. Passionate outbursts at a public input meeting and planned protest to disrupt meetings are captured with increasing frequency on today’s omnipresent electronic media. The negative invective allowed/encouraged during political campaigns seems to carry over to public input meetings and other places intended for the measured, deliberative processes of governance. In the public forum, sometimes it is easy to discern the planned protest from the passionate outburst; sometimes it is not. When a theater group pretending to be audience members broke into song to object to the demise of the public option in the Health Care Bill at an American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) Annual State Issues Conference, the protest was obvious, planned, and refined (Singing Flashmob, 2009). When a Congressman yells “You Lie” at the President during a joint session (Remarks, 2009) or an individual in attendance at a public meeting screams invectives at a County Commissioner, it is more difficult to discern if the vocalization was a passionate utterance of the moment or a planned strategy. Likewise, it is difficult to tell from afar if the behavior is a behavioral trait of an individual or a behavior emboldened by what has been seen on news channels, reality shows, or from others who advocate one’s position. Regardless of its cause, many agree with Innes & Booher’s (2000) conclusions that the legally required ritual of public input meetings isn’t working:

The traditional methods of public participation in government decision making simply do not work. They do not achieve genuine participation in planning or decisions; they do not provide significant information to public officials that makes a difference to their actions; they do not satisfy members of the public that they are being heard; they do not improve the decisions that agencies and public officials make; and they don’t represent a broad spectrum of the public. Worse yet, they often antagonize the members of the public who do try to work through these methods. (p. 2)

This paper examines why those who manage public meetings and public input processes should be concerned about the apparent growth of citizen incivility. Wang (2001) defines traditional public participation processes as including “public hearings, citizen forums, community or neighborhood meetings, community outreaches, citizen advisory groups, and individual citizen representation. Citizen surveys and focus groups, the Internet, and e-mail are also used” (p. 322). Concerns arise about whether incivility is a passing fancy or a threat to democratic processes and government attempts to foster communication/ accountability. After discussing some concerns about rising incivility, the essay will discuss what might be done during public meetings to moderate uncivil behaviors.


A White Paper prepared by the Boise State University Public Policy Center.

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