The concept of allowing others to participate is pretty well exemplified by a public meeting in Texas.

Public meetings are for the agency holding the meeting to show that they are not making sneaky decisions behind closed doors (not an exact quote from the Open Meetings Handbook, but very near it). They are not a public discourse, however, and while they may be open to the public, participation by the public is limited by what is allowed. Allowed public comment is usually at the start of the meeting, speakers are limited to 3 minutes (or less) and what they say may or may not be addressed or acknowledged depending on the published agenda.

There’s a reason for this, right? If public entities held meetings in which anyone could speak on any topic, even the reasonable people who had something relevant to say would likely often be drowned out by the nonsense. If that doesn’t resonate with you, you have not attended a public meeting in a small town in Texas. Or any public meeting, for that matter.

There is a reason allowed participation is limited. It is important to maintain order and complete the meeting in a timely manner, as well as to only address the items that the public has been notified will be spoken about. However, those whose participation is not limited can drone on at length and say whatever sense or nonsense their ability to participate warrants.

How does this connect?

When we allow others to participate, we place inherent limitations on their participation. We set (often arbitrary) boundaries around them and tell them, directly or indirectly, how they are to behave if they are to participate.

While this may be a more effective method of maintaining order in the wild west of public meetings in Texas, when we do this in other places we keep the good out without a clear identification of the bad. If you are certain that someone will be a bad actor or a participant with a negative impact, don’t allow them to participate. Problem solved. However, we often assume bad actors rather than know them for certain, and we may allow them to participate if we think we have to or if we deign to throw them a bone while making sure their potential impact is neutralized.

Walking that line is challenging. Which is why we don’t often walk it, we stay clearly on one side or the other. You either allow broad participation because you think that everyone should be allowed to participate or you limit how much participation you allow because you don’t really think that the participation of others is anything more than a necessary evil.

Keep in mind that walls work two ways. As much as they may (or may not) keep out the bad, they are just as likely (if not more so) to keep out the good.