A Cautionary Tale on Managing Public Comments

A Baltimore Sun article (2017-09-05) offered a cautionary tale on local legislative bodies acknowledging the free speech rights of their citizens while maintaining a reasonable level of decorum and discourse during public hearings. The situation surrounded a series of Anne Arundel County Council meetings where Council Chairman John Grasso sought to manage remarks made by citizens that were critical of fellow Council Member Michael Peroutka.

Initially, Grasso sought to limit citizen comments through the use of council Rule 4-106, which prohibits “personal, defamatory, or profane” remarks. After concerns were raised by the ACLU of Maryland that the rule might violate First Amendment rights, Grasso did not utilize Rule 4-106 but did enforce a 2-minute time limit for each person offering public input. From the article:

 

The ACLU contends that not only was Grasso wrong in keeping the two [members of the public] from speaking, but that sections of [Rule 4-106] are “unconstitutional.”

“None of the remarks that they sought to make were defamatory … so the only possible basis for prohibiting their remarks was that they were ‘personal,’ which you appear to interpret as barring critical commentary on particular individuals, including council members and other public officials,” the ACLU wrote. “Such a rule clearly violates the First Amendment.” …

 

The ACLU wrote in its letter that “courts around the country have repeatedly determined … similar rules that prohibit critical comments about public officials at meetings of public bodies are overbroad and/or content or viewpoint based rules in violation of the First Amendment.”

Grasso responded in the article that he was only trying “to maintain (the) order of the meeting.”

MACo advises that counties should tread carefully regarding the rights of citizens to speak at a public meeting. Members of the public who ignore basic meeting protocols (such as continuously speaking outside of the times allowed for public comments or shouting so that no meeting business can be conducted) can be prohibited from continuing to speak. Likewise, consistently enforcing a time limit that applies to all public speakers is reasonable. However, when it comes to limiting the content of a speaker’s comments, county governments should be cognizant of potential First Amendment infringement, even if the county officials are acting in good faith.