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By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

A citizen feels strongly about an issue in the community. He or she attends a city council meeting to voice those concerns. Unfortunately, the powers that be prohibit the citizen from addressing the controversial topic. Have the citizen’s First Amendment rights been violated?

Such a scenario is not a product of a healthy imagination. It is a daily reality for countless citizens across the country.

Sometimes government officials need to silence disruptive citizens or to prohibit endless repetition. However, other times the officials may be squelching citizen speech because they want to suppress the message. This article seeks to explain the legal parameters surrounding the regulation of citizen speech.

Many government meetings are open to the public and reserve a “public comment” time for citizen commentary on issues. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained in its 1990 decision White v. City of Norwalk: “Citizens have an enormous First Amendment interest in directing speech about public issues to those who govern their city.” These meetings, particularly the “public comment” period, are at the very least a limited public forum during which free-speech rights receive heightened protection.

Types of public forums
In First Amendment jurisprudence, government property that has by tradition or by government operation served as a place for public expression is called a traditional public forum or a limited public forum. In a traditional public forum, such as a public street, speech receives the most protection and the government generally must allow nearly all types of speech. Restrictions on speech based on content (called content-based restrictions) are presumptively unconstitutional in a traditional public forum. This means that the government can justify them only by showing that it has a compelling state interest in imposing them, and that it has done so in a very narrowly tailored way.

At limited or designated public forums, however, the government designates certain types of subject matter. One court explained as follows: “After the government has created a designated public forum, setting boundaries on classes of speakers or topics, designated public fora are treated like traditional public fora.” This again means that content-based exclusions face a high constitutional hurdle. Even in nonpublic forums, restrictions on speech must be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.

One must be careful in discussing the public-forum doctrine, because courts do not apply the doctrine with consistency. For example, some courts equate a limited public forum with a designated public forum. Other courts distinguish between the two, as a 2001 federal district court in Pennsylvania did in Zapach v. Dismuke. That court noted that “there is some uncertainty whether limited public fora are a subset of designated public fora or a type of nonpublic fora.”

Just because something is called a public forum doesn’t guarantee a person unfettered freedom to utter whatever is on his mind. Public bodies can limit their meetings to specified subject matters. Also, the government may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech as long as those restrictions are content-neutral and are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.

In other words, the government could impose a 15-minute time limit on all participants as long as it did not selectively apply the rule to certain speakers. Council members would violate the First Amendment if they allowed speakers with whom they agreed to speak a full 15 minutes, but allowed speakers they did not agree with to speak for only five minutes.

It bears stressing that First Amendment rights are not absolute during public-comment periods of open meetings. Speakers can be silenced if they are disruptive. Disruption has been defined to include far more than noisiness and interference. For example, a federal district court in Ohio wrote in Luckett v. City of Grand Prairie (2001) that “being disruptive is not confined to physical violence or conduct, but also encompasses any type of conduct that seriously violates rules of procedure that the council has established to government conduct at its meetings.”

“A speaker may disrupt a Council meeting by speaking too long, by being unduly repetitious, or by extending discussion of irrelevancies,” the 9th Circuit wrote in White v. City of Norwalk. “The meeting is disrupted because the Council is prevented from accomplishing its business in a reasonably efficient manner. Indeed, such conduct may interfere with the rights of other speakers.”

Unfortunately, many situations arise in which citizens are silenced because of the content of their speech or because they have disagreed previously with a government official. This raises the specter of censorship. Government officials may not silence speech because it criticizes them. They may not open a “public comment” period up to other topics and then carefully pick and choose which topics they want to hear. They may not even silence someone because they consider him a gadfly or a troublemaker.

In City of Madison Joint School District No. 8 v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, (1976) the U.S. Supreme Court said in a collective-bargaining dispute case arising out of teachers’ speaking at a board of education meeting:

“Regardless of the extent to which the true contract negotiations between a public body and its employees may be regulated — an issue we need not consider at this time — the participation in public discussion of public business cannot be confined to one category of interested individuals. To permit one side of a debatable public question to have a monopoly in expressing its views to the government is the antithesis of constitutional guarantees. Whatever its duties as an employer, when the board sits in public meetings to conduct public business and hear the views of citizens, it may not be required to discriminate between speakers on the basis of their employment, or the content of their speech.”

A federal district court in Pennsylvania explained in the 1993 decision Wilkinson v. Bensalem Township: “Allowing the state to restrict a person’s right to speak based on their identity could quickly lead to the censorship of particular points of view.”

An Ohio appeals court refused to dismiss the lawsuit of an individual who sued city officials after being thrown out of a city commission meeting for wearing a ninja mask. In City of Dayton v. Esrati (1997), the Ohio appeals court reasoned that the individual wore the mask to convey his dissatisfaction with the commission. “The public nature of the legislative process and the right of citizens to participate in and voice their opinions about that process are at the heart of democratic government,” the court wrote. “The government may not impose viewpoint-based restrictions on expression in a limited public forum unless those restrictions serve a compelling state interest and are narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

Other issues
Courts have also been wary of laws, rules or regulations that prohibit criticism or personal attacks against government officials. A federal district court in California invalidated a school district bylaw that prohibited people at school board meetings from criticizing school district employees. In Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District (1997), the court wrote: “It seems clear that the Bylaw’s prohibition on criticism of District employees is a content-based regulation. … It is equally clear that the District’s concerns and interests in proscribing public commentary cannot outweigh the public’s fundamental right to engage in robust public discourse on school issues.”

Similarly, a federal district court in Virginia struck down a school board bylaw that prohibited personal attacks during public comments at meetings. (See Bach v. School Board of the City of Virginia Beach, 2001.)

Another kind of restriction on citizen speech at public meetings involves residency. One federal appeals court determined that a city council rule prohibiting nonresidents from addressing the city council was constitutional. In Rowe v. City of Cocoa (2004), a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a resident rule was reasonable and viewpoint neutral. “A bona fide residency requirement … does not restrict speech based on a speaker’s viewpoint but instead restricts speech at meetings on the basis of residency.”

When a government decides to offer a “public comment” period at an open meeting, it provides that citizens may exercise their First Amendment rights. Government officials can limit comments to the relevant subject matter, control disruptive or overly repetitive speakers and impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech. However, when government officials create a public-comment forum, they have created a limited public forum in which greater free-speech protections apply. The government may not silence speakers on the basis of their viewpoint or the content of their speech. The government must treat similarly situated speakers similarly. In essence, the government must live up to the values embodied in the First Amendment.


City council critic settles lawsuit over barred comments

Grand Prairie, Texas, man sued town after mayor prevented him from speaking during two 1999 meetings. 12.15.01

ACLU challenges town council's public comment rules
Group asks judge to throw out policy requiring residents to sign up 30 minutes in advance, speak only about items on meeting agendas. 02.03.02

Oklahoma House would allow boards to cut public comments short
State attorney general’s 1998 opinion said state law, First Amendment don’t require that people be allowed to speak at public meetings. 05.19.03

Judge backs Alabama teacher's right to speak at board meeting
Court says Cindy Naylor's speech about teacher workloads can't be cut short on 'mere basis that others react positively to it.' 11.08.04

Council president orders speaker's removal from meeting
ACLU says Danny Wells violated First Amendment when he told Burton, Mich., police to eject Laurie Tinnin for accusing officials of taking bribes. 01.21.05

Attorney muzzles critics of W.Va. school board
'It's not the public's meeting,' says Norwood Bentley. 'It's the school board's meeting.' 03.10.05

ACLU criticizes town council's ban on 'Wal-Mart' comments
Group says Yelm, Wash., policy barring any mention of 'Wal-Mart' or 'big-box stores' is unconstitutional. 07.11.05

Publisher sues over removal from Ala. City Council meeting
Federal lawsuit claims Hanceville officials violated Edmund Flaig's rights by ordering him out after he tried to ask question. 02.19.06

Pastor's curse makes council wary of public comment
Ontario, Calif., looks for ways to limit speech by citizens attending meetings after outburst places curse on city manager and his family. 06.12.06

Ala. woman arrested after council meeting wins damages
Dispute over water fees led to charges of harassment against Sharon Myers, but jurors found her First Amendment rights to speech, assembly were violated. 07.28.06

Mayor silences speaker who said 'bimbo'
Man escorted from Las Vegas City Council meeting after criticizing inclusion of showgirls at promotional functions. 01.03.07

Nazi salute before council ruled too offensive
Saying free speech goes only so far in City Hall, federal judge declares homelessness activist's protest gesture disruptive. 04.05.07

Federal court rejects council critic's First Amendment claims
By David L. Hudson Jr. Judge says Kirkwood, Mo., man didn't have right 'to voice repetitive, personal, virulent attacks against' city and its officials during public meetings. 02.07.08

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