Many local governments opt for speech restrictions in meetings

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

Press-rights experts say they are noticing a growing trend of local governments that are restricting speech and reporting during meetings, but they admit they can't explain why.

Consider these examples:

  • The Johnson County Board of Commissioners in Wyoming recently voted to ban all audio and video recordings of its public meetings. Commissioners claimed the new policy was a way to prevent inaccurate reporting.
  • The mayor of Topeka, Kan., can operate a switch during the city's council meetings that turns off the microphone at the public lectern. The council also requires citizens to raise their hands and take an oath to be truthful before speaking.
  • A school board in Gainesville, Fla., and a city council in Raleigh, N.C., adopted policies limiting rude and critical comments during public meetings. The policy in Florida disallowed comments about school employees who were not in attendance; the one in North Carolina prohibited council members from being rude to the public.

Jane Kirtley, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she wasn't sure what is motivating school boards, councils and other local governing bodies to restrict speech and reporting in meetings.

“I don't know what exactly is going on, except that people get uncomfortable with democracy sometimes,” Kirtley said.

Kevin Goldberg, an attorney for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the public must enjoy full access to government proceedings not only because of First Amendment concerns but because it promotes citizen participation in government.

“It's important to let people not only understand decisions that affect them but to let them participate in them as well,” Goldberg said. “Not many people actually participate, but they would like to believe that they can.”

Kirtley and Goldberg said local officials may be seeking restrictions in order to reduce their liability should someone step up to the microphone and say something defamatory. But they noted that while speakers at public meetings don't enjoy an absolute privilege and have been sued, city councils have never been held liable.

That being the case, Kirtley said she fears many councils adopt restrictions to discourage the gadflies and more extreme speakers from voicing opinions during meetings.

Regardless of the reason for the restrictions, Kirtley said the end result tends to be similar. “It reduces some of spontaneity and give-and-take that, I think, should be part of the proceedings,” she said.

Calls to local officials, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Council of Mayors were not returned.