City Councils Under Legal Pressure Not To Muzzle Public Speakers

, The Connecticut Law Tribune


Cicero Booker
Cicero Booker

It was just that sort of slippery slope, by seeking to limit negative or defamatory comments, that the officials in Waterbury and Winchester had gotten themselves involved with.

To avoid these kinds of legal disputes, some municipal lawyers have advised governing bodies they represent to avoid public comments altogether, or at least limit the amount of public input time made available.

Kathleen Foster, assistant corporation counsel for the City of New Haven, said the law allows cities to conduct the business they need to get done. "Public meetings are not Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park," she said."They are gatherings at which the public's business is transacted, hopefully in an orderly and transparent manner."

While some city business, including zoning board matters, call for public input which is governed under specific statutes, many public agencies try to incorporate "public sessions" into their discussions on public policy.

The challenge, Foster said, is doing that "in a way that is not disruptive or unworkable."

Wihbey, the Waterbury city attorney, said the board had sought three changes to its meeting rules. The first, was to limit the public comments to areas on the agenda. The second was to prevent "harmful or negative comments." The third change didn't have anything to do with public comments at all, it sought to limit the time aldermen could speak to five minutes per topic.

She pointed out that the board agreed to back away from the changes, even though the only legal objection that was raised had to do with efforts to reduce negative public comments.

Wihbey said it can be a challenge balancing the law with the politics at the local level. "We have a lot of thing happening [in Waterbury] and we want to facilitate that business."

Sandy Staub, the lead lawyer at the ACLU in Connecticut, said her office will remain vigilant against any effort by local governments to commit "viewpoint discrimination."

"Free speech is an important issue for everyone in Connecticut and its one of the core issues we address, the right to be heard," Staub said. "There really aren't any organizations out there that are defending those rights, and as you can see with those attempted rule changes in Waterbury and Winchester, we can't trust the municipalities to defend those rights."

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