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KRISTEN CATANZARO

SWEARING-IN PROPOSAL WOULD CHILL PUBLIC DEBATE

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Such an oath is standard if you're testifying in court. But what if you're appearing before local officials to complain about a neighbor's dog that is left outside to bark until midnight? What if you were exaggerating and it was really — oh, 11:30 pm? Could you be setting yourself up for a perjury rap?

That absurd scenario almost became reality in North Providence, Rhode Island, where the town council approved a proposal last December to require people to take an oath that they were telling the truth before addressing the august body. Anyone who wished to speak would first have to be sworn in by the stenographer.

"It adds professionalism and integrity to the council chambers," town-council president Kristen Catanzaro told the North Providence Breeze. And though she said she had no intention of establishing a truth squad to enforce the measure, she raised the possibility that violators could find themselves in big trouble. "If someone has made false comments under oath about an issue that goes to court," she said, "the judge will see that the person made those comments under oath."

As communications consultant Rob Horowitz wrote for the Web site GoLocalProv, "With this one move . . . the North Providence city council has essentially neutered the purpose of the meeting — chilling speech by requiring an unneeded and intimidating oath that raises the specter of prosecution if a citizen says something inaccurate."

Fortunately, common sense prevailed. Mayor Charles Lombardi asked the council to reconsider. And in January, the council suspended the policy before anyone had been required to raise his or her right hand.

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