OKLAHOMA CITY Supporters say it's a commonsense way to maintain order at local school board meetings. Opponents say it could deny citizens the right to speak their mind at public meetings.
Legislation that authorizes school boards and other local government agencies to restrict public comments at meetings passed the Oklahoma House on May 16.
Opponents say they will work to defeat the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.
"This bill will allow public officials to deny citizens the opportunity to speak at public meetings about public funds and other public business," said state Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City, who argued against the measure.
The bill's author, state Rep. Curt Roggow, R-Enid, said the legislation would allow school boards and other local public bodies to adopt their own policies on accepting public comments during their meetings.
Supporters said the measure would give local control to school boards to prevent disruptive and divisive comments from members of the audience who wish to speak on issues that may not be part of a meeting's agenda.
But Toure and other opponents said the legislation could be used as an excuse to block all public comment at local school board meetings. Toure said members of some local governing bodies may want to stymie public comment because they do not want to hear what the public has to say.
"If the public is not allowed to come in and comment, that's bad public policy," said state Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City.
"This bill does not tell them they are not supposed to have public comment," Roggow said. Members of the public who are prevented from expressing themselves at local meetings of public bodies should respond by voting their members out of office, he said.
"If they're not going to hear your comments, there's an election process," Roggow said.
A 1998 opinion from state Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office said neither Oklahoma's Open Meetings Act nor the First Amendment require local boards to give people the right to be heard at public meetings.
Edmondson said boards can set guidelines and rules on how and when they will receive comments from the public.
Language in the measure states "no public body shall be required by the Open Meeting Act to permit comments from the public during any of its meetings."
The measure, House Bill 1670, passed 70-26 after House members accepted a conference committee report on the bill. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.