ACLU Says Town Boards Can't Bar Critical Comments By Public
For the second time in six months, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has warned a municipal legislative body that its rules governing public statements at meeting may be in violation of constitutional free speech rights.
This past summer, the target was the Winchester Board of Selectmen, which had barred anyone speaking at public meetings from making "personal complaints or defamatory comments" about board members, anyone connected with the town or members of the audience. Following a July 25, 2013 letter from the ACLU, the board discontinued its policy.
Now Waterbury's Board of Alderman is under fire. The board, essentially a city council, has a policy that prohibits "ad hominem, personal, malicious, slanderous or libelous remarks" during public speaking periods at board meetings and hearings. However, speakers are permitted to offer praise and other positive comments.
The result, according to the ACLU, is viewpoint discrimination, which the civil rights organization says is forbidden by the First Amendment and by similar clauses of the Connecticut Constitution. The ACLU has sent a letter complaining about the policy to Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O'Leary and the aldermen.
The letter, written on behalf of Cicero B. Booker Jr., a retired Waterbury police officer, also argues that the ban on "malicious" remarks invites public officials to censor individuals' speech based on their perceived motives, something the U.S. Supreme Court has also held to be unconstitutional, according to the ACLU.
"The government may not silence people because their opinions are unwelcome or unpopular and may not censor criticism of the government and its representatives," David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a prepared statement. "This is true in every town and city, at all levels of government."
The letter warns that enforcement of the policy could lead to a civil rights lawsuit. However, the ACLU does state that public bodies can put some limits on public speech during meetings.
"The city possesses the power to impose reasonable restrictions on the permitted subjects for public discussion: for instance, by requiring that citizens' comments relate to the meeting's agenda," the ACLU said in its letter. "But the city cannot restrict
comments within a permitted subject area based on the speaker's viewpoint."