“In essence, I was being censored. For all intents and purposes, they suggest my Constitutional Rights are superseded by my obligation to the Town.”
My name is Bill Isabella. In August of 2013, I retired from a 30 year career at which time I thought I would remain busy by volunteering somewhere within my community. I discovered my local South Kingstown Senior Center (SKSC) which offered a variety of opportunities to “give back.”
Initially, I volunteered in the kitchen helping to serve lunch to the numerous seniors in attendance. I soon discovered the many stimulating programs offered at the center and began attending among others, the weekly Current Events (CE) Discussion. Within a year, the facilitator of the discussion group announced she would no longer lead the group at which time I stepped in to volunteer and continue the weekly dialogue. At no time was I asked to either apply for or submit to any application process for either the facilitator or kitchen position.
I continued to work in the kitchen while also facilitating at current events until the Covid debacle ended the kitchen duties. The discussion group on the other hand wanted to continue which we did through ZOOM meetings. When weather permitted, we met outdoors at a local town park which morphed into a 3½ hour picnic/discussion happening each Thursday. It’s important to understand and appreciate how important this event is to so many seniors of which I am, but only one. The mental stimulation and socialization especially at this point in our lives is vitally important to our overall health. A sense of purpose as well as the ability to openly express an opinion is at the center of our discussions. Many of the 20-30 weekly attendees have said the Current Events discussion meetings are the highlight of their week, I too share that opinion.
In May of 2022, several CEer’s expressed a desire to see the Dinesh D’Souza movie, 2000 Mules. At the time it was not playing in any local theaters. I purchased an “internet link” to the movie announcing on May 12th we would see the film the following week, May 19th. One participant vehemently objected to the viewing then proceeded to declare the movies content had been debunked at which time I suggested he bring us the debunked information for review. He refused then declared he was leaving our group, of course never wanting to hear or see the data collected and reported in the film. His displeasure with the movie showing was reported to the director of the Center, Susan DiMasi.
The following Tuesday, two days before the scheduled showing I was asked to meet at the center to discuss the movie and the CE program. The meeting was attended by me, the Center Director, as well as a representative of the town, the Director of Leisure Services, Theresa Murphy. The meeting was permeated by instructions on how I was to conduct any future discussions as well as indicating that as a volunteer, I am acting as an agent of the Town and therefore bound by their rules which had never before been established.
In essence, I was being censored and told what I can and cannot say. Furthermore, if I raise a subject I must also deliver an opposing viewpoint which I refused stating the opinions of the assembly may have an opposing opinion which is exactly the purpose of the CE meetings. I contend my opinion is my own however mandating I take an opposing view forces me to betray myself which I will not do to satisfy their new mandate.
Two days later (Thursday) 32 persons assembled ready to view the movie 2000 Mules all of which were disappointed when they were told the Center forbad us from showing the film. It took several weeks during which time several emails and phone messages to the town manger went unanswered. On June 16th the USPS returned notification to me indicating my letter to the manager was received at the Town Hall. On June 23rd I made a follow up phone call to the manager’s secretary, Coleen Camp. On June 27th I received a voice mail message from Coleen. Finally on June 30th I spoke to Coleen who scheduled a meeting between James Manni, and Theresa Murphy. I and a close friend and CE attendee Jeff Coons were granted an appointment with the Town Manager, James Manni at his office.
Throughout the course of the approximately hour and fifteen minute meeting the message was clear, the town was in support of the earlier decision by the Senior Center to dictate how the Current Events program should proceed. In the view of the town, I the facilitator am obliged to show opposing views of any subject we discuss regardless of my own personal opinion. In fact I am considered as representing the town while in my capacity as facilitator. As such I should be neutral in what subject I propose.
My position has been and continues to be, to bring a subject to bear with supporting facts then let the conversation seek a direction without imposing my opinion. I challenged their assertion of my representing the Town as I am not paid by the Town nor have I signed a document stating my obligation to the Town in my capacity as facilitator. Their claim is the Town Solicitor also supports their contention that I represent the Town in all matters as facilitator and also must not reveal my opinion while remaining neutral.
For all intents and purposes, they suggest my Constitutional Rights are superseded by my obligation to the Town. I passionately disagree with their assertion. As I understand their position, anyone who is in the status of facilitator is also obliged to adhere to the position of neutrality. So there you have it, the Town believes their perceived interests override my First Amendment Rights and to a degree yours as well in particular while on Town property. Their refusal to allow the movie in question to be shown at the Center supports their interests of perceived neutrality while it is in my opinion their position imposes their will upon us all, clearly a violation of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech.
On a positive note, we were able to convince the Town Manager to come to our July 21st Current Events meeting in person to explain his and by extension the Town’s position on this matter. This 75 minute meeting did not go well for the Town Manager. The 30 plus who met with him wanted to know why their meeting was being censored specifically why they as mature adults could not see the movie in order to make up their minds for themselves relative to the allegations raised in the film. To a person they contend their Constitutional Rights had also been abridged by the Town of South Kingstown. The meeting ended with instructions from James Manni to the director of leisure services, Theresa Murphy to “…fast track an official Town policy” on this matter.
On August 1st I received and email from Susan DiMasi with instructions to either sign and agree with the tenets of the newly minted “South Kingstown Senior Services Volunteer Handbook” or I would no longer be welcomed as the CE facilitator. I’ve attached the handbook to this email. Please note on page one the date of 7/25/22 which is an update to the policy. In the 8 plus years of my volunteer association with the SKSC I have never seen or been advised of a volunteer handbook. I refused sign.
Ahead of our next normally scheduled group meeting on August 11th I asked the many participants to gather in the parking lot of the center to sign and deliver a petition to Susan. Our group of 26 marched into the foyer peacefully whereupon we met with Susan who appeared very nervous in the face of 26 55-90 year old seniors. She immediately phoned the town hall for support. Theresa Murphy and one other appeared who were given the signed documents while our group asked why the town had taken a position based on a singular complainant’s opinion without due consideration for the overwhelming majority point of view. There was no response only a repeat of the mantra that as a facilitator I ‘…shall remain neutral and balanced, presenting both (or several) sides of a discussion/topic” .
Once again the administration was advised of how each class begins which is to invite topics from the group before any topic I may have in-hand. In fact the first several slides in my weekly power point presentation deal with this issue.
In order to encourage participation, each month the meeting is turned over to the participants in our First Of The Month Free For All.
August 11th was to be our last meeting at the South Kingstown Senior Center. Subsequent requests to surrounding communities and facilities yielded the Charlestown Community Center accepting us without restrictions. It is now our new home.
Our goal in asking you to become involved with us in this matter is to use your power and voice in exposing how political supremacists in seats of power desire to suppress any speech or for that matter any thoughts they disagree with. This is a matter of free speech as guaranteed by our most precious document and foundation of our great country, the U.S. Constitution. Please carefully consider our plea for help. If you require additional information please contact me at your convenience.