Government officials and employees are often the subject of criticism. For local government officials, that criticism is often expressed at the regular meetings conducted by the governing board and open to the public. In the Village of Ruidoso, New Mexico, the village council enacted a policy to deal with negative comments by speakers at council meetings. Ruidoso's policy prohibited speakers from making "any negative mention...of any Village personnel, staff, or of the Governing Body" during the public comment period of village council meetings. That policy was recently challenged, and found unconstitutional, by a district court in Griffin v. Bryant (N.M. Dist. Ct. June 18, 2014).
William Griffin had filed suit against the Village of Ruidoso after the village council refused to allow him to speak at a council meeting. He challenged the policy on a variety of constitutional grounds, including that the policy was an unconstitutional violation of his First Amendment free speech rights. The village defended the policy, claiming that it was a content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction designed to prevent disruption at council meetings. The district court disagreed with the village, and found the policy unconstitutional. Because the village council meetings were a limited public forum, any restriction on speech must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral. In this case, the policy failed the second prong because it permits praise and neutral feedback, but not negative or critical feedback. It failed the "reasonable" prong because the ban on negative speech was not narrowly tailored - the restriction on negative speech was too broad and the village council could have crafted a more restrictive rule banning personal attacks or disruptive speech rather than banning all negative comments.
The court did provide some helpful guidance on how the village council could replace its unconstitutional policy with public comment rules that might pass constitutional muster. For example, the court pointed the village in the direction of Topeka, Kansas' public comment policy that bans speakers from making "personal, rude or slanderous remarks." The court also provided other tips on revising the policy to deal with the issues the village raised about disruptive speakers, without running afoul of the First Amendment.
The decision is a long one (89 pages) but worth a read for its detailed analysis of the First Amendment and government meetings.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink