Let the Public Speak

Limits on how and when the public can address a public body can get too restrictive; some even seem retaliatory.


Some public bodies really make it seem like they don’t want to hear what you have to say.

It’s not unusual for time limits to be placed on comments made by the public at public meetings. Three minutes is a pretty common limit.

It’s not unusual, and it’s not hard to understand why it’s done. People do tend to rattle on, repeating themselves and often taking a long time to get to the point. (Hint: anyone who starts a comment with, “I’ll be brief,” usually isn’t!) And if everyone who wanted to speak was given unlimited time to do so, the public comment period -- and hence, the meeting -- could last for hours. Everyone needs sleep!

After that, though, it’s the extras that tend to get me grumbling:

  • a requirement to sign for speaking time in advance anywhere from immediately before the meeting to days in advance;
  • a prohibition against speaking about anything not on the agenda; 
  • a prohibition against addressing any member of the public body directly;
  • a requirement to state one’s address (which led to the ejection from the meeting of one citizen who would not comply);
  • a mandate on the specific way to voice support of a speaker’s statements, but no allowable way to voice opposition; or
  • a limitation preventing representatives of groups to speak. 


The limitations might not be so bad if they were considered in a systematic, deliberate way. Some are. But too often these changes in policy appear retaliatory, as is the case in Pittsylvania County. According to a story in the Danville Register & Bee, at its meeting Monday night, the Board of Supervisors proposed changing their bylaws on public comment. Currently the bylaws give individual speakers three minutes to speak and gives group representatives 10 minutes. The proposal would bar group representatives from speaking at regular meetings, and would require individual speakers (or their agents, like lawyers) to live in the county or be land owners there.

Were Pittsylvania County not in the midst of the debate over lifting the uranium mining, and were the county not in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU to prevent the use of sectarian prayers at public meetings’ start, the timing of the proposed change might not seem suspect.

But when accompanied by a supervisor’s comment that he didn’t want someone from outside Pittsylvania telling the board how to run the county or complaining to supervisors, the proposal has the distinct aftertaste of an attempt to curtail public debate.

FOIA does not guarantee a right to speak at meetings, and the First Amendment allows the use of content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on speech in this limited public forum. Speakers have a duty to maintain decorum, avoid profanity and, preferably, stay on the point of public business.

But outside of time limits, let the people speak, and consider using the opportunity to engage them -- explain why what they want won’t work or acknowledge that they’ve made a valid point that should be investigated. Thank them for being involved. Encourage them to stay involved. Listen to them.

Of course the public’s business needs to be done. But governments shouldn’t be too stingy in hearing what the public thinks about that public business. Without the latter, what’s the point of the former?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Arnold Smithson June 18, 2012 at 03:00 AM
Restrictions are typically described as "narrowly tailored" because they're infringing on some sort of basic right, such as freedom of speech. I don't know the relevant case law here, but if the Supreme Court has applied the standard of "narrowly tailored" to speaking at public meetings the idea is that the government recognizes a First Amendment right to speak, but also recognizes that people shouldn't be able to filibuster. So things like time limits are ok. I could be making this up though. The only place I've ever heard of a narrowly tailored statute is in things having to do with race so I could be completely wrong.
Arnold Smithson June 18, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Cliff's notes of my above post: there is a First Amendment right to speak in public forums that has been recognized by the court, but the courts have also recognized that there is a need to stop disruptive behavior and have applied narrowly tailored limits to that right. It's a somewhat minor point, but A.B. is correct that speech at public forums is a constitutional right.
Megan Rhyne June 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM
It's been a few years since my days teaching 1st Amendment speech law at Hampton University, but I don't believe the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Minnesota v. Knight on the above has changed. Here's what it says (and here's a link to it): http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/465/271/case.html "However wise or practicable various levels of public participation in various kinds of policy decisions may be, this Court has never held, and nothing in the Constitution suggests it should hold, that government must provide for such participation. . . . Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court's case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to speak, associate, and petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to individuals' communications on public issues."
Megan Rhyne June 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM
Yes, the right to speak in a PUBLIC FORUM is a constitutional right. A public meeting, however, is not considered to be a "public forum." It is considered to be a LIMITED PURPOSE PUBLIC FORUM. The government can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions at a limited purpose public forum.
Peter June 18, 2012 at 07:01 PM
This is just the kind of nonsense that allows rights to be turned into privileges and privileges to be revoked. And human behavior to be progressively criminalized. Who wins when we lose our constitutional rights? The lawyers. Law enforcement. Corrupt elected officials.


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