City Councils Under Legal Pressure Not To Muzzle Public Speakers
Municipal lawyers take notice: The public does not want to let elected local leaders avoid verbal criticism at public meetings.
That message was brought to the steps of city hall in Waterbury earlier this month, after the city's Board of Aldermen tried to alter its meetings policy to tamp down on the number of negative remarks it's been forced to endure.
Cicero Booker, a retired police lieutenant and past president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP, took offense to the policy, which sought to prohibit "ad hominem, personal, malicious, slanderous or libelous remarks" during public speaking sessions at board meetings and hearings.
Naturally, the move spurred some critical public remarks.
"When I found out what the Board of Aldermen was doing, I was outraged," Booker said. "You can't limit the right of citizens to question or criticize our government without damaging our democracy."
Booker took his complaint a step further. He contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which assigned a lawyer to step in on the public's behalf. A sharply worded letter, David McGuire, a staff attorney with the ACLU, alerted the board that restricting "what" people could say would be chilling to their 1st Amendment right to be heard.
The board of aldermen quickly backed down, rescinding its plan to alter the rules. Linda Wihbey, the city's corporation counsel, said the board opted not to pursue rule changes limiting public comments in any way, even those that are lawful, "because of the public outcry that ensued."
A similar issue was raised in Winchester in July, when the ACLU warned its Board of Selectmen that a policy change it was considering to forbid "personal complaints or defamatory comments" would be a violation of law. As in Waterbury, the Winchester town officials opted to discontinue the policy.
While case law has firmly established that governments are not required to grant members of the public any forum to be heard, the issue is still a thorny one. The law clearly prohibits any government action that restricts a person's opinion or viewpoint.
"Anything that would limit public participation in a public meeting is an unfortunate rule, but there is a doctrine out there that allows it," said Danie Silver, a first amendment lawyer in New Britain. "It's called the limited public forum rule and it says that a public meeting such as a town council meeting in not the same as a public forum in a park or on the street and your rights to be heard are limited, you don't have a mandatory first amendment right to speak," he said. "The reasoning behind it, is you have other means, you can write letters, or you can vote people who you don't like out of office."