A: The City Council requires members of the public to state their names and addresses before making public comment. I did so at a recent meeting. In the minutes of that meeting my comments were edited, and my private information (address) was published. I did not sign anything nor did I give anyone a verbal ok to use that information. As a retired peace officer I am concerned about my right to privacy being violated. What remedies may I take?
Q: A helpful place to start with your inquiry may be to address whether the city council can require individuals who wish to publicly comment at regular meetings to provide their names and addresses (either in writing or orally) before they speak.
Unfortunately, the Brown Act, which is California’s open meetings law, is silent on whether a public agency may require speakers to state their name before or during public comment. See Gov’t Code § 54954.3 (public testimony at regular meetings).
Government Code section 54953.3 states that a member of the public cannot be required to register his or her name as a condition of attendance at a meeting, but does not state anything with respect to speaking.
However, the Supreme Court has recognized that there is a First Amendment right to speak anonymously. See:
Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc’y of N.Y., Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150 (2002) (ordinance requiring those intending to engage in door-to-door advocacy of a political or religious cause to obtain and, upon demand, display permit, which contained one’s name, violated First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse);
Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 539 (1945) (“As a matter of principle a requirement of registration in order to make a public speech would seem generally incompatible with an exercise of the rights of free speech and free assembly”).
It seems that this right to speak anonymously would also apply to city council meetings since such meetings are likely considered to be public forum, for which members of the public have broad constitutional rights, as explained below.
Meetings of legislative bodies, such as city council meetings, are regarded under First Amendment framework as “limited public forums.” See White v. City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421, 1425 (1990).
Speech in a “public forum,” which includes public spaces such as sidewalks and parks that have traditionally been used for conduct protected by the First Amendment, can only be restricted if a high standard is met.
(The other end of the spectrum is the “non-public forum,” or places not traditionally open to the public for speech or petition-related activities. Restrictions in non-public forums need only be reasonable and are generally upheld.)
“Limited public forums” that traditionally have not been made open to the public, but have become public forums for at least some purposes because the government body that regulates a particular area has made it available for use by the public — such as a city council or planning commission meeting — command the same high standard that applies to public forums, so long as the conduct fits within the time or purpose for which the place has been made open. See Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983).
Thus, while it is likely not unconstitutional for the city council to ask public speakers to provide their names and addresses before speaking, there may be an argument that requiring them to provide that information in order to speak would violate First Amendment principles.
Therefore, at future meetings, if you do desire to speak, you may want to inform the council that you decline to provide your name and address, and instead wish to exercise your First Amendment right to speak anonymously at the meeting.
You also ask what you can do about any potential invasion of privacy that the city council may have engaged in by publishing your comments after the meeting, along with your name and address.
Advising you on these privacy issues in any detail goes beyond the scope of what we can provide through this service, which is focused on open government and free speech.
From an open government perspective, however, it would seem that since you stated your name and address at a public meeting, the city probably did not cross any boundaries with respect to privacy by publishing your name and address following the meeting, given the information had already technically been “published” in a public forum.
Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.