Monday, May 27, 2024

Political comments OK'd at BOCC meetings

Staff Writer | May 15, 2024 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — “The devil is in the details,” said Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson regarding the fine line between electioneering and First Amendment rights at commissioner meetings.

While Commissioner Asia Williams’s agenda item was removed where she was hoping to discuss the topic in further detail with her fellow commissioners, she instead briefly touched on the issue during her commissioner report.

On March 26, a new bill went into effect for every election in Idaho, extending the electioneering distance from 100 feet to 250 feet. The bill prohibits any electioneering, advocating for or against candidates, soliciting votes in any manner, giving or offering to give money or gifts, or engaging in any practice that interferes with voter freedom to exercise their right to vote at the polling place.

However, Bonner County has discovered a sort of gray area, as early voting takes place at the Bonner County Administration Building — the same building where the commissioners’ meetings are held on Tuesday morning. Last week, an online public commenter was muted for “electioneering comments,” although it was unclear whether what he was saying was allowed or not given the split use of the building during early voting. Many claimed that the commenter’s First Amendment rights were being infringed upon, while others claimed that allowing comments like that in proximity to a polling area was against the law.

Williams read a statement from Wilson regarding the conversation Tuesday, saying the county was in a weird situation since both activities took place in the same building.

“It forces us to reconcile two different legal principles — First Amendment concerns at a business meeting versus the electioneering statute previously discussed,” she quoted from Wilson’s statement.

According to Wilson’s statement, he said he believes the electioneering code is clearly meant for comments or actions aimed toward people who are actively trying to vote.

“I don’t think speech in a meeting qualifies so long as it is directed to the BOCC and others who are there to attend the meeting,” Williams quoted. “If that speaker went into the hall and said the same things to the people who were trying to vote, that would be a different matter.”

Wilson urged everyone to be mindful of what they are saying in different areas of the building, because saying something in the commissioners’ meeting might be allowed, but saying it right outside the door might not. Everyone needs to respect the rules of the Administration Building as a polling place while the election season is underway, he said.