In more than 20 years as a resident of the town of Shirley, Robert Schuler has volunteered on many municipal efforts, from chairing the school committee to assessing police officers. He has been elected three times to the town’s Sewer Commission, and is in his fourth term as an appointed member of the Finance Committee. Those who have worked closely with him on town affairs attest to his valuable expertise.
Yet for nearly two years Schuler has been barred from Town Hall by order of Shirley’s board of selectmen. His offense? At a Finance Committee meeting in 2011, he hyperbolically spoke of shooting a gun as he criticized the selectmen’s sluggishness in dealing with a budget deficit. “Don’t tell me they haven’t done anything with it,” he said in exasperation, “or I’m going to pull my gun out and start shooting or something.” No one in the room interpreted Schuler’s words as a threat, and the meeting continued for another 30 minutes. A routine video recording of the meeting shows that Schuler’s remark was innocuous — about as menacing as Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners” warning Alice, “Pow! Right in the kisser!”
Yet within days, Shirley’s selectmen — none of whom had attended the meeting — unilaterally and indefinitely banned Schuler from setting foot on town property. Ever since, he has been unable to attend meetings of the committees he serves on — he now joins by phone — or even to vote in person on Election Day. Schuler, a gun owner, voluntarily surrendered his firearms to police and readily apologized for his comment. No charges were ever filed against him. Both the Finance Committee and Sewer Commission urged the selectmen, to no avail, to rescind their ban. “None of us, in any way, feel threatened by [his] presence,” they wrote.
This isn’t just absurd; it may well be illegal. In a federal lawsuit filed this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts alleges that the selectmen’s real reason for banning Schuler was in retaliation for his past criticism of them. If so, their petty vindictiveness violates more than common sense. “The Constitution protects both popular and unpopular speech, including hyperbole,” says the ACLU’s legal director. Shirley’s selectmen weren’t elected to persecute their critics. They should stand down.