The First Amendment right to free speech has been called into question recently in town, with regard to actions involving former police commissioner Thomas Joyce.

This pertains to Darien resident Reed Barthold’s discovery of multiple tweets made on Joyce’s Twitter account that were a “degradation of the town and country’s very ideals,” according to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson. Joyce has subsequently resigned from his position.

While many residents have commented on social media that Barthold did the town a good service for bringing attention to Joyce’s tweets, at least one person felt the opposite strong enough to put his thoughts, albeit anonymously, in the mail.

On Monday, Darien resident and RTM Finance and Budget Committee member Stacey Jo Mills Tié. tweeted she received an anonymous letter, which included a copy of the Darien Times article that spoke of Joyce’s resignation. Above the letter was a statement referring to Tié’s social media comment, which said Barthold is courageous for his actions.

The writer said: “‘It took a lot of courage’ for Reed Barthold to decide that he is judge and jury for all around him, and for him to search through 4 years of tweets to find something that he found offensive. Reed has clearly violated his first amendment rights, and your comments further encourages this appalling behavior. The only person Reed Barthold should be holding accountable is himself.”

Tié sent the letter to the Darien Police Department.

“Darien has an opportunity to come together, reflect, heal and grow,” Tié wrote on Twitter. “We can’t be afraid of difficult conversations. Together we can make Darien an inclusive, accepting community,”

During public comment at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, Barthold, who spoke virtually, referenced the large reaction his actions and comments in have made in the town.

“I have been made aware through unproven and notional back channels of alleged push back, legal and otherwise, as a result of my letters and my comments made about certain parties here this evening,” he said. “Certainly, speculative remarks are held by me with little to no substantive regard.”

Barthold continued: “However, any thinly-veiled attempt to silence these actions for what they are, speaking truth to power, is exactly what is wrong with the system.”

Social media policy

There was a lengthy discussion during public comment at the meeting about appointed and elected officials’ Twitter accounts and Darien’s social media policy.

Selectman Sarah Newmann said she’s concerned that Joyce’s Twitter posts had been up for awhile.

“I had no idea how many had seen the posts and interpreted the comments to mean that the town of Darien shared Mr. Joyce’s feelings,” Newmann said.

She also said the town should have a social media policy.

“We need to determine the standards of what we want our elected and appointed officials to be held to,” she said.

Town Administrator Kate Buch said Darien has a social media policy regarding “what we post as a town.”

However, Buch said the town can’t enforce restrictions on employees or appointed officials for what they do with their private social media accounts.

She said that as a board, “you want to consider how you address that when you consider people for appointments.”

A question town officials may want to ask candidates is, “Was there anything in their background, including on social media, that might prove embarrassing to the town?” Buch said.

Stevenson said she supports that, and that it should become a routine part of the process for both the Republican and Democratic Town Committees, “so that anyone that they refer to us has at least one round of that inquiry.”

Selectman David Martin said the initial source of dissemination of information should not be from one’s personal account, but instead, should come from the town of Darien’s account.

Buch manages the town of Darien’s Twitter account.

Martin suggested the town ask potential nominees to disclose what social media they use and ways to identify them on social media in terms of their log-in name, so “if the board wants to review their social media activity, we can identify them readily,” he said.

However, town attorney Wayne Fox, who was present at the meeting, said the difficulty is there’s a statute that is very clear that that kind of request is inappropriate for an employee.

Public comment

That meeting’s public comment portion has also recently raised some discussion about town protocol during the pandemic.

During the early stages of COVID-19, with Town Hall closed, residents were encouraged to send in written comment due to social distancing, which could be shared during the meeting. More recently, the board has met in Town Hall, socially distanced, and has allowed residents to register to speak via signing up to speak live stream from a separate location.

At last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, the board addressed the public comment section. They invited Barthold to speak. Following his verbal comment, Town Administrator Kate Buch confirmed with board members she had emailed the submitted written comments to each selectmen earlier that day. None of the selectmen requested the public comment be read aloud at that time and they moved on to the next item on the agenda.

At least two residents — Former First Selectman Evonne Klein and Ann Reed — told The Darien Times they had submitted comments and expected to have their comments read at the meeting.

After learning her comments weren’t read, Klein told The Darien Times she was very disappointed. She said public comment is an opportunity for all Darien residents to “have a say and be heard not only by elected officials, but also by fellow Darien residents on issues that are of concern to them.”

Additionally, Klein said, “The protocol for public comment should be clear, easy to obtain and function during normal times as well as during challenging times, such as what we are facing today. The ability for residents to have a say is critical to the workings of our town and government.”

Klein added, however, that the issue of public comment can’t serve as a distraction to the “challenges facing the town and nation” that have surfaced in the last several weeks.

“I would hope that the selectmen establish a clear protocol and inform residents of how we can participate in public comment. Then we can get to the work and come together as a community to address the challenges we face in our home town,” Klein said.

Klein said she plans to read her comments at the next Board of Selectmen meeting on July 6. You can also read them here.

When The Darien Times asked First Selectman Jayme Stevenson if emailed public comments were addressed at the meeting, she said, “We welcomed the public offering public comment as we always do. Folks were given the opportunity to register to offer live comment as Reed Barthold did. We received a number of letters which were distributed to the BOS and will be attached to our minutes, making them viewable by the public.”

Additionally, Darien Town Administrator Kate Buch said she had asked Town Counsel what it meant to read something into the record.

“He told me that traditionally it meant to append the written comments to the record of the meeting - not to actually read them all,” Buch said.

Buch added she forwarded all e-mailed comments to the board during the day and stated that she had done so at the meeting.

“None of the board members asked to actually have the e-mails read aloud - so I didn’t,” Buch said. “I would have done so if requested by a member of the board.”

Moving forward

Barthold said he plans to reach out to Darien Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Moore to ask some questions, including:

 “How does the RTM Board of Ethics conduct oversight on town officials and their actions?

  “Should that oversight not exist, or not in a constructive capacity, why?”

  “How is the Ethics Committee going to change to further ensure things like this don’t happen again?”

In his comments, Barthold made reference to Joyce’s tweets, saying, “The moral arch of history is long, but it bends towards justice — the day comments objectifying women, defending assault, and calling for profiling of any religious group are preferable to an appointed official being held accountable, is the day this country's fragile experiment begins to die.”

On Monday, Tié told The Darien Times she was definitely rattled upon receiving the anonymous letter, but after sharing with the police, she thought it over a few days and decided to share it publicly.

“I decided that if anything, I wanted some good to come out of it. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, we are better than this. Let’s put this stuff aside and start working together instead,’” she said.

sfox@darientimes.com

Additional reporting by Susan Shultz.