City Councils Under Legal Pressure Not To Muzzle Public Speakers
Silver and other fist amendment lawyers say it appears that recent decisions affirming that law have given municipalities the opportunity to test the limits of the law.
The public's right to be heard at government meetings has been a hot topic since 2011, when a federal court in Connecticut ruled that local governments could in fact limit the public from speaking at meetings.
In the case of Smith v. City of Middletown, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall ruled the common council did not violate the First Amendment rights of citizens when it passed a resolution that limited speech during televised Council meetings to items that were on the agenda.
Before 2006, the counsel allowed members of the general public to speak on topics that were not on the meeting agenda. Those public comments were televised on a local access station, and were held before meetings when agenda items were discussed.
In October of that year, the council unanimously voted to change the meeting format, moving the public session for non-agenda items to the end of the public meeting, and ceasing televising of those meetings.
In 2009, the policy was again changed, removing the public comment section during public meetings. Instead, the council began holding monthly meetings for the public that were not part of the official council meetings.
It was that final format change that prompted Lee Smith and Donna Gagnon-Smith to sue the council, claiming the rule change was intended to limit their free speech rights. They further argued the council had targeted their rights specifically, accusing one council member of admitting the format was changed because "that couple" spoke before the council "all the time."
In her decision, Hall wrote "the right to petition the government for redress does not include a right to speak at the public hearing of a legislative body."
But under her ruling on the rights of governments to limit public comments, Hall was clear that the law clearly establishes that such limits must be "viewpoint neutral."
"A government entity," Hall wrote, can only impose restrictions on speech "that are reasonable and viewpoint neutral," and cannot engage in "viewpoint discrimination."