By: Diane Benjamin
Before Bloomington attempts to regulate what citizens can say at public comment they need to read what the Attorney General’s office wrote:
The PAC found that because there was no evidence that the comments actually disrupted the meeting, the council could not restrain the speech.
In this case, the city council muted two speakers during public meetings. The first speaker criticized a decision by the mayor. The second speaker was muted for criticizing specific public employees.
Restrictions in the name of decorum, however, must be narrowly construed to only regulate conduct that actually disturbs or impedes a meeting. Improper disturbances include speaking over the allotted time limit, being unduly repetitious, or extending an irrelevant discussion. Such actions prevent the public body from efficiently accomplishing its business. The OMA, however, does not allow a public body to adopt overbroad and arbitrary rules limiting public comment, particularly where there is no actual disruption of a meeting.
Here, the PAC found that the City Council applied its “abusive language” rule in an overly broad manner. It censured comments that were critical of the public body but did not actually disrupt a meeting. Accordingly, the PAC concluded that the City Council violated the OMA by muting the community members.
It is natural for public officials to want to protect employees and public officials from what may often seem like unfair criticism. This decision is a reminder that, for the PAC, such inclinations of a public body will not likely be enough to justify restraining speech.
Other public bodies need to pay attention too!