Missoula Case Tests Balance Between Free Speech, Public Safety
A man accused of threatening and intimidating Missoula public officials was arrested this week and made his initial court appearance Thursday.
It's a case of alleged harassment that’s forcing public officials to reexamine the delicate balance of freedom of speech and public safety.
Missoulian Brandon Bryant has for months been a regular at local city council meetings. But Bryant’s behavior during the public comment section of a council meeting last November raised red flags for council members.
"My name is staff sergeant Brandon Bryant and I will be speaking until I am done," Bryant told the council.
Bryant, an Air Force veteran who says he suffers from PTSD, vociferously opposes the city’s tax system that helps fund city redevelopment and infrastructure projects. He says it’s siphoning money from taxpayer pockets, gentrifies neighborhoods and displaces working class residents.
He opened his comments that November evening by characterizing most Missoula City Council members as traitors, before launching into a parable about the rich taking advantage of the poor.
A warning for listeners: It quickly escalates to hollering.
Bryant: "(shouting) Do you understand that story? You are that rich man!"
Mayor John Engen: "You’re not gonna yell in this chamber, sir, or you’re not gonna be able to participate."
Bryant: “You need to understand, mister ..."
Engen: "Sir ..."
Bryant: "What you have done …"
Engen: "You need to ratchet down …"
Bryant: "You have sold out this community …"
Engen: "I’ll adjourn the meeting and we'll …"
Bryant: "That’s fine, because you have wrecked the trust in this community …"
Engen: "We’re off until we can calm down (gavels meeting closed)."
And with that, Mayor John Engen temporarily adjourned the meeting until order could be restored.
Some of Bryant’s supporters on social media describe him as a patriot who’s being censored by local government officials. Not so, says Missoula Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings, who says that sort of outburst puts city officials, who have to weigh public safety with freedom of speech, in a bind.
"Freedom of speech is critically important. Certainly, people have a right to comment to their city council or engage in government, However, there are lines that can be crossed. When you threaten someone’s life or their safety or that of other people or their families, that’s illegal under Montana law," Jennings says.
That November incident would not be Bryant’s final encounter with the council. Last month, grasping a bokken -- a wooden Japanese training sword -- in council chambers, he criticized one of the city’s taxing mechanisms as an imperfect tool.
"Just like if a sword is made incorrectly, it doesn’t protect the people that use it and need to use it for terrible means. This tool you have at your fingertips, if you do not use it correctly, it will end people’s lives in ways that are worse than death," Bryant said.
Missoula City Council President Bryan Von Lossberg says, “Yeah, I was chairing that meeting, and honestly I would handle things differently if I were doing it again.
"Folks were uncomfortable for their safety. What was going through my mind was that a person had brought an object like this up to the podium and identified it as a weapon. I was having difficulty tracking the distinction that he was trying to make about it and its use."
Von Lossberg says he should have immediately adjourned the meeting.
As a result of that incident, police officers are now stationed at the council’s Monday and Wednesday meetings.
Von Lossberg then discovered what he called disturbing YouTube videos featuring Bryant.
One is titled, "I Would Be Justified in Going on a Killing Spree".
In another, "Brandon Bryant Promises to 'Eliminate' People Over the Next Year," he rails against those he feels have wronged him, including city officials, former Air Force colleagues and a woman he describes as his lost love.
That video and others like it prompted Von Lossberg and his council colleagues to alert city police. According to charging documents, Bryant told responding officers he made the videos to get a response, but that they were posted by someone else trying to make him look bad.
A few days later Missoula police referred the case to the County Attorney’s office. Bryant was arrested Tuesday and now faces a felony.
"He was charged with one count of threats or improper influence in official and political matters; essentially for making threats against city council members," Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings says.
"The maximum penalties for that charge are 10 years with the Montana Department of Corrections and/or a $50,000 fine."
Missoula City Council President Bryan Von Lossberg suspects cases like this one are deterring too many citizens from participating in their local government. He says even before the Bryant case, public policy debates in Missoula were more frequently devolving into personal attacks during public meetings.
"There is a reason that we make attempts to avoid outbursts and cheering and clapping. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but part of the reason we do that is that everyone, regardless of their position on an issue, should feel comfortable in their community coming up to the podium and expressing their views."
Von Lossberg notes recent U.S. history is rife with angry, disaffected young men making online threats and following through on them with tragic consequences. While that did not happen in this case, Missoula Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings says that type of speech creates a greater grey area for when law enforcement should take action:
"A lot of the stuff that we’re seeing is on social media or they are videos, whereas the statutes may have been written decades ago to deal with a different type of incident. I think it’s something that we as a society – and I hope the Legislature specifically does take a look at -- to make sure that we can find ways to stop violence before it happens, rather than trying to understand why it happened afterwards."
Brandon Bryant is currently in the Missoula County Detention Center. His bail is set at $100,000