CITY HALL — When children first learn the power of cutting words, parents often respond with an age-old maxim: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Then, it’s called a life lesson. When children grow up, apparently, it’s called a civility agreement.

The City Council voted Tuesday to sign onto one such national document, and directed staff to return with a Santa Monica-specific agreement that they hope will promote high-minded public discourse.

The agreement brought before the council had been originally introduced to the U.S. Conference of Mayors by Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup in response to the brutal shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the deaths of six people.

“Regardless of what the motives behind the tragedy in Tucson might have been, it occurred in an atmosphere in which public discourse is often confrontational and lacking in civility,” the agreement reads.

It goes on to suggest that by reinforcing core principals of kindness and respect, civility can be “restored,” and gives six bullet points on exactly how to do so.

It requests that people respect the rights of all to hold different opinions, avoid language that dehumanizes or questions a person’s patriotism, speak truthfully and avoid distortion, and to speak out against all other forms of incivility.

Mayor Richard Bloom and Mayor Pro Tempore Gleam Davis brought the item forward with the hope that it would not only remind the public and public officials to mind their manners, but improve the tenor of debate.

“There are instances of less respect in the room, and having this as a formal policy of the council and something that can be distributed to the public to let them know we value the ability to disagree without being disagreeable,” Davis said.

The concept immediately drew ire from one of the few remaining members of the public at the council meeting, Denise Barton, who makes a point to read long, acerbic critiques of council members at least twice every meeting.

“I have to question if this is an attempt to stifle free speech and opposing views,” she said, accusing the council of another attempt at “social engineering.”

Gene Policinski, the senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, said that the agreement skirts any kind of infringement on free speech rights by suggesting rather than requiring certain behaviors.

“Absent any specific restrictions, it sounds like simply good advice,” Policinski said.

These kinds of actions run into legal trouble when they impose harsh time constraints on speakers, or force them to pre-register to speak far in advance of the meeting, he said.

“It’s those kinds of constraints that inhibit speech way out of proportion to the order it would bring,” Policinski said.

The four council members present said that they hoped it would promote free speech, rather than quash it.

“This is in no way intended to stifle criticism of the council or the policy of the city,” Davis said. “I think the more we maintain a civil discourse, it enhances First Amendment rights and gives people greater freedom and comfort to express their opinions and viewpoints without fear.”

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