In a recent decision, the Public Access Counselor (PAC)—the division of the Attorney General that reviews appeals regarding the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA)—found that a city council violated the OMA by muting community members during public comment. The city council prohibited public comments criticizing public officials during public meetings. The PAC found that because there was no evidence that the comments actually disrupted the meeting, the council could not restrain the speech. Although the PAC decision is not binding on other public bodies, its decision is a reminder of the broad rights of members of the public to criticize public officials’ exercise of their public duties absent an actual disruption of the meeting.
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. The council justified the muting based on its policy allowing the presiding officer to mute a speaker’s microphone or video presence at a meeting, after a verbal warning, if the speaker “uses abusive, harassing, threatening, or defamatory language, or who engages in disorderly conduct that disrupts, disturbs, or otherwise impedes the orderly conduct of a meeting.” According to the city council, the speech at issue included personal attacks and abusive, harassing, and defamatory statements. The policy defined “abusive” as language that is “harsh, violent, profane or derogatory . . . [and] would demean the dignity of an individual or . . . is intended to humiliate, mock, insult, or belittle an individual.”
The PAC accepted the request for review to address whether the city council’s public comment rules impermissibly restricted the community members’ right to public comment. It noted that the OMA allows public bodies to establish reasonable rules limiting the time, place, and manner of public comment to assist with expediency and decorum at meetings. 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.