The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Free speech or out of order? As meetings grow wild, officials try to tame public comment.

A crowd of angry and largely unmasked people object to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s mask mandate for schools on Aug. 18, 2021, in Baton Rouge. (Melinda Deslatte/AP)

A school board meeting in Greeley, Colo., kicked off this month with a newly restrictive public comment policy — the fourth iteration in a year marked by such vitriol over masks and books that one member suggested suspending comment altogether. Two opportunities for citizens to address the board for a total of four minutes had already been slimmed to one three-minute chance per person. Now speakers would have two minutes each.

In Rochester, Minn., where public comment at city council meetings has featured personal attacks on the mayor and baseless accusations about the library promoting pedophilia, speakers since October have been permitted to comment just once a month — and the board is considering further restrictions.

And in Salem, Ore., the school board in September closed meetings to the public and began taking comments by Zoom or phone or in writing, following what the superintendent called an “escalation of disruptive behavior” that had turned in-person comment into a “public forum for political agendas.”

Across a polarized nation, governing bodies are restricting — and sometimes even halting — public comment to counter what elected officials describe as an unprecedented level of invective, misinformation and disorder from citizens when they step to the microphone. As contentious social issues roil once-sleepy town council and school board gatherings, some officials say allowing people to have their say is poisoning meetings and thwarting the ability to get business done.

A school board meeting in Dearborn, Mich., was suspended Oct. 10 after attendees shouted and refused to leave when the gathering exceeded fire code capacity. (Video: Dearborn Public Schools/YouTube)

“I’m not denigrating the concept of acknowledging true questions our community has. That’s vital. That’s what I’ve spent my entire adult life doing,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, a former school board member and Democratic state lawmaker. But, she added: “Do I think we have an obligation to have the same personal attacks be made week after week, year after year? No.”

The efforts to moderate public comment — and audience outbursts that can accompany it — are taking place in both red and blue regions as elected officials cope with what the American Association of School Administrators, the School Superintendents Association and the National School Boards Association have referred to as rising threats of violence and aggression at community meetings.

But some legal experts and lawmakers worry some restrictions are overreactions by thin-skinned officials that skirt unconstitutional limitations on free speech. Even if legal, they argue, reining in comment runs contrary to the American ideal of letting the public express views to representatives chosen and funded by taxpayers — even if those views include threats, bigotry and falsehoods.

“Access to public meetings and that face-to-face, whether virtual or in-person, opportunity for the citizenry to talk to their elected officials is foundational to our democracy,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Her organization filed a brief in support of a challenge, which was recently heard by the state Supreme Court, to the public participation policy of the town of Southborough’s select board.

That case stemmed from a 2018 meeting at which a resident, citing a state finding that the board had violated open meeting law, accused members of “breaking the law” and then, when its chair ended public comment, called him “a Hitler.” The resident argues the policy, which prohibits “rude, personal or slanderous remarks,” was unconstitutionally deployed to avoid criticism. The town says it is reasonable to maintain order.

Elected councils and boards generally are not required to hold in-person public comment sessions, but most see it as best practice. Rules vary: Many set time limits, prohibit applause or signs, and restrict comments to agenda items. Others let speakers opine on whatever they wish. Members often do not respond substantively to avoid lengthy debates. A growing number, the ACLU says, instruct speakers to be civil and refrain from personal attacks.

Francisco Negron, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, said he advises members that time and topic limits are generally fine, as is limiting speaking opportunities to locals at a time when curriculum debates often draw national activists. Smaller citizen advisory groups can also help give constituents other forums to air concerns, he said.

But generally, Negron said, he tells boards: Parents care deeply about children, so let them have their say.

“If a person is impassioned, a person is loud, a person is visibly shaken, those things are all okay in the public sphere, as long as there’s no actual physical safety threat,” he said. When it comes to false comments: “It’s democracy. Everybody in this country has the right to their opinion.”

But the policies are being tested at a time of increased — and impassioned — interest in local politics.

In Indiana, a school board suspended public comment in 2021 after raucous meetings, including one at which an audience member’s gun fell from his pocket. Last year, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill forbidding that option. School boards must now offer time for oral public comment at all meetings, though they are permitted to take “reasonable steps to maintain order.”

“Parents deserve to have their voices heard when it comes to their children’s education,” state Rep. Tim O’Brien (R), the bill’s sponsor, said in an email. “It’s terrible public policy to make decisions in a vacuum.”

Federal courts have offered mixed guidance, legal experts say. The Supreme Court has affirmed Americans’ right to criticize public officials. But those officials may impose neutral limits in settings such as town council meetings — limiting speakers’ time and the topics to be addressed, for example. Courts have been less consistent about whether rules policing vaguer notions, such as decorum, are acceptable.

“What does rude mean? What does courteous mean?” said attorney Ruth Bourquin of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which was joined by a free-market group, Pioneer Legal, in its opposition to the Southborough policy.

It has left board and council chairs and their attorneys to navigate gray legal terrain while trying to get through agenda items.

In Greeley, Colo., things grew especially heated in September, when a woman read a passage from a book that she complained was in school libraries: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” one of nation’s most challenged books, according to the American Library Association. It graphically describes a father’s rape of his young daughter.

Superintendent Deirdre Pilch faulted the woman for “trying to horrify” the audience, which included students. A board member tearfully suggested suspending public comment.

The board did not seriously consider that, said its president, Michael Mathews. But Mathews, a Presbyterian minister, said members did consult with attorneys about where constitutional protections end.

“It’s been difficult to know what to rule ‘out of order,’” he said. “We could suspend public comment. But it’s not something we ever want to do. We want to hear from our public.”

In December, speakers were allowed a single spot of three minutes each. Things went off the rails almost immediately.

The first speaker called the board “tyrants and criminals … pushing pornography on children.” Mathews sunnily thanked him for his comments. The second presented a stack of papers she said were district complaint forms about books that “violate federal obscenity laws.” Several other attendees filed to the front of the room, where they dropped thousands more forms on the floor as a security guard hovered.

When the superintendent called for a recess to clear what she referred to as “trash,” half the room erupted. “You’re trash!” a man yelled. Mathews pounded his gavel, calling a recess.

The board returned minutes later, and comments resumed.

“You want us to go away?” asked one speaker, Candice Sawyer. “Then take what we’re doing and understand that we’re upset, and we’re growing in numbers.”

A man called the new policy “anti-constitutional” and said he would ignore it. A woman screamed that board members were “disgusting.”

Mathews called a second recess, then adjourned the meeting early after audience members again shouted while the superintendent reported on her efforts to address complaints about books.

When the board returned this month, speakers had two minutes each, an additional uniformed officer was present, and audience chairs were rearranged so that anyone approaching the dais would need to pass a security officer.

“It is perfectly legal for someone to come and call me disgusting,” Mathews said. “The problem is the behavior — and by people who are not speaking.” Zoom-only meetings remain an option if disruptions continue, he added. “We can’t just keep postponing reports that we’re receiving or business that we need to attend to.”

In Rochester, City Council President Brooke Carlson said one of her primary concerns is making sure meetings remain welcoming to people of all viewpoints and identities. The council’s once-monthly limit on commenting has helped, she said, though it did not please regular speakers.

“You are supposed to be servants of the people,” one, Othelmo da Silva, told the board, according to a video of the meeting. “You should be here to listen to us for as long as you need to, because we are technically your bosses.”

That is a view shared by Barry Sanders, a city council member in Taunton, Mass. Last fall, the council briefly suspended public input after a speaker chastised a council member by name over a dispute that began on social media, violating a requirement that comments be “respectful, courteous and not personal in nature.” Sanders opposed the suspension.

“That’s what the First Amendment speaks to: the right of the public to have their grievances heard. Not the right of the public to say nice things about their elected officials,” Sanders said.

A local progressive group, Taunton Diversity Network, was also concerned. The council has now settled on a policy that limits speaking time and prohibits threats or incitement, but also eliminates the civility requirements.

In Oregon, the Aug. 9 Salem-Keizer school board’s comment session began with the usual guidance from its chair: Speakers chosen at random would have three minutes each. Disruptions such as fighting, vulgarity or hate speech might get you ejected.

Meetings had been tense for months, and this one was no different. When one woman referred to the memoir “Gender Queer” as “cartoon pornography,” shouts erupted from the audience, prompting the board’s attorney to deem the comment “First Amendment-protected speech.” Crowd members protested: “That was hate speech!” a man yelled.

Friction rose as speakers offered dueling comments on a proposed ban on weapons on school properties. Other speakers condemned the “school-to-prison pipeline” and accused some audience and board members of being “white supremacists.”

Animus between speakers spilled into the parking lot and came close to physical confrontation, according to a later investigation by the district’s safety manager, who recommended in-person meetings and comment be halted for safety purposes. Perry, the superintendent, said she agreed — but not happily.

“It used to be, ‘Come in, sign up. We’ll call on you.’ No big deal, right?” Perry said. That changed during the pandemic, she said.

“You want that personal connection, so I think that is what’s missing when the public is not in the room,” said Perry, who is retiring this year. “I think I’ve been known for that over my career and saying, ‘How can we bring this together and find that common ground?’ And I haven’t really figured that out yet. … We are living in really polarized times.”

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