MAY FREE SPEECH BE RESTRICTED AT PUBLIC MEETINGS?
A parent claims that his right to freedom of speech was trampled upon at a board of education meeting when he was denied the ability to read a letter in open session he had previously emailed to individual board members. The parent then insisted that the written statement be put on the board agenda for the next meeting. The board chairperson refused, but did accept the letter as part of the public record. In it the parent blasted the superintendent for not firing an elementary school principal for the drop in her school’s standardized student achievement test scores. The parent also gave a copy of his angry letter to the newspaper, which published it verbatim.
Orally repeating the contents of a letter, which school board members had previously been emailed, accepting it as part of the public record during the meeting, and then physically handing the same statement in the form of written material to each board member, again, was deemed not only redundant, but not pertinent to a matter on the board agenda. Reading the letter out loud to the board of education would also have involved talking about a personnel matter in public session without permission of the targeted administrator.
The U. S. Supreme Court has held that a governmental body, as in local planning and zoning commissions and boards of education, may entirely exclude public speakers, if it so chooses, from participating in meetings without violating the Constitution. It is only when officials decide to grant the opportunity for public comment that any restrictions imposed must be scrutinized in light of the First Amendment.
In White v. City of Norwalk (not the Norwalk in Connecticut), the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court held that a town council had the right to restrain or even physically remove individuals for disruptive or repetitive speech after being declared out of order.
While any board or commission may stop a speaker if his or her speech becomes irrelevant or repetitious, “a speaker may not be stopped from speaking because the moderator disagrees with the viewpoint he is expressing.” A speaker may become disruptive in ways that would not otherwise meet the test of an actual breach of peace, such as by speaking too long, by being unduly repetitious, or by an extended discussion of irrelevancies. The disruption is caused because the town council or board of education is prevented from conducting its business in an efficient manner and the speaker’s conduct might interfere with the rights of other speakers.