A federal judge in the Northern District has ruled in favor of the South Glens Falls, N.Y. school board which removed a South Glen Falls resident who sought to discuss a topic prohibited by the school board at a previous meeting. The case provides a good example why web sites like Talk of the Sound play a vital role in permitting community discussion of actions by the school district that are not permitted at school board meetings. At the very least it ought to help the school board to articulate something that has, so far, escaped the, the legal basis for limiting free speech during the public comment period during school board meetings. The phrase they are looking for is “limited public forum”.
U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe for the Northern District of New York ruled in favor of the defendants in Curley v. Philo. In his July 14, 2009, opinion, Sharpe reasoned that the case hinged in part on the application of the public-forum doctrine. In First Amendment law, individuals have greater free-speech rights in some places or forums than in others. Curley had tried to voice objections to a school-banquet slide show and a coach replacement, but was told both topics were off limits; when he continued he was escorted from the building.
[You can read Judge Sharpe’s opinion here]
The case hinged on whether the public comment period of the school board meeting was a designated public forum or a limited public forum. A limited public forum is a non-public forum that the government opens for discussion limited to certain kinds of speakers and topics. In a limited public forum, government officials must make reasonable, viewpoint -neutral rules regarding content.
It would be interesting to see how this sort of case would fare in New Rochelle where the school board under Cindy Babcock-Deutsch often made nonsensical, arbitrary rules regarding content and could never seem to come up with a legal argument as to the basis for her actions. She routinely permitted positive statements to be made about district employees by members of the public addressing the school board (in fact, speakers who come before the board to praise district employees are never told they cannot discuss employees at a board meeting and have been, in the past, given extended time to continue their positive remarks). Even the slightest bit of criticism of district employees was met by threats and even adjourning meetings before the public comment period had ended.
The courts have spoken on the “no-negativity” policy in a case five years in Oklahoma ruling in favor of a parent filed suit over the policy after she was escorted from meeting by police.
The First Amendment Centers lists several cases worth considering.
Attorney muzzles critics of W.Va. school board
By The Associated Press 03.10.05
‘It’s not the public’s meeting,’ says Norwood Bentley. ‘It’s the school board’s meeting.’
Board of Education rescinds policy muzzling critics
By The Associated Press 03.22.05
West Virginia county officials revise stance after residents complain about restrictions on public comments.
R.I. city school board changes rules for public comments
By The Associated Press 04.08.09
Under new plan, East Providence school officials will require that citizens who wish to speak at meetings give one week’s notice and indicate their topic.
Public comments at council meetings won’t be broadcast
By The Associated Press 08.08.08
Bartlesville, Okla., councilors vote 3-2 to prevent at-home TV audience from hearing residents’ remarks