“Public speech at school board meetings is in fact protected by the First Amendment”
A federal judge has ordered the Pennsbury School Board in Pennsylvania to allow parents and other community members to offer criticism at meetings.
You wouldn’t think that a judge would need to get involved in a situation like this, but here we are.
The Institute for Free Speech put out this press release:
Court Orders Pennsylvania School Board to Allow Critics to Speak
A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a Pennsylvania school board to allow parents and community members to criticize school policies and officials by name at public meetings. The court cited abundant evidence in its opinion that the Pennsbury School Board has abused its policies governing speech at meetings to discriminate against speakers based on their viewpoints. The ruling is an important step towards holding school boards everywhere accountable for their treatment of parents and citizens during public comment periods.
“Public speech at school board meetings is in fact protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Judge Pratter of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The court’s order prohibits the Pennsbury School Board from enforcing a variety of restrictions on speech at public meetings while the case proceeds, including bans on speech deemed “personally directed,” “personal attacks,” “abusive,” “verbally abusive,” “irrelevant,” “disruptive,” “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “otherwise inappropriate.” It also orders the Board to stop requiring speakers to announce their home address before making remarks.
Those provisions of Pennsbury School Board Policy 903 and 922 were challenged in October in a federal lawsuit brought by four parents and community members who were repeatedly censored at school board meetings.
Eugene Volokh of Reason has an excerpt from the opinion:
Court Strikes Down School Board Restrictions on “Irrelevant,” “Abusive,” “Offensive”, “Intolerant,” “Inappropriate,” or “Otherwise Inappropriate” Public Comments
From Judge Gene Pratter’s opinion today in Marshall v. Amuso (E.D. Pa.):
The Pennsbury School Board invites public comment at its meetings. The Board’s Policy 903 governs public participation in school board meetings and Policy 922 (designated by the Board as the “Civility Policy”) applies to all school activities. Any taxpayer, school employee, or student is allowed five minutes to make a comment, subject to certain requirements and restrictions. Speakers “must preface their comments by an announcement of their name, address, and group affiliation if applicable.” The Board’s presiding officer may interrupt or terminate public comments deemed “too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene, or irrelevant.” The presiding officer may also “[r]equest any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum” and can “[r]equest the assistance of law enforcement officers to remove a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting.” Similarly, “offensive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate banners or placards, or those that contain personal attacks” are prohibited…
The First Amendment protections for free speech apply to speaking at public school board meetings. The parties agree that a school board meeting is a limited public forum. In a limited public forum, “[c]ontent-based restrictions are valid as long as they are reasonable and viewpoint neutral.” However, “viewpoint discrimination is impermissible in any forum.” …
This is a win for free speech and we should take them wherever we can get them.
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