PAC Rejects Public Body’s Limitation on Criticism of Public Officials Absent Actual Disruption

Franczek P.C.
Contact

Franczek P.C.

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.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Franczek P.C. | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Franczek P.C.
Contact
more
less

Franczek P.C. on:

Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
- hide
- hide

This website uses cookies to improve user experience, track anonymous site usage, store authorization tokens and permit sharing on social media networks. By continuing to browse this website you accept the use of cookies. Click here to read more about how we use cookies.