A&A: School Site Council tactics intimidate parents, public

Q: I am interested in a possible cause of action arising from events at a meeting of the high school Site Council, at which public comment was cut off by the chair.  The individual was repeatedly ruled “out of order.”

The person was then ordered out of the meeting and, when he failed to comply, an armed police officer was summoned. The officer, however, determined that situation was not a police matter and refused to remove the man from the meeting.

Nonetheless, the action had a chilling effect on parents and other members of the public attending the meeting.  This seems to be a First Amendment violation as well as a violation of the Brown Act. Can you help?

A: It sounds like you may already know that under the Brown Act — California’s open meetings law — the legislative bodies of local agencies are required to provide opportunities for the public to comment at regular meetings, as follows:

(a) Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body, provided that no action shall be taken on any item not appearing on the agenda unless the action is otherwise authorized by subdivision (b) of Section 54954.2.

However, the agenda need not provide an opportunity for members of the public to address the legislative body on any item that has already been considered by a committee, composed exclusively of members of the legislative body, at a public meeting wherein all interested members of the public were afforded the opportunity to address the committee on the item, before or during the committee’s consideration of the item, unless the item has been substantially changed since the committee heard the item, as determined by the legislative body.

Every notice for a special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body concerning any item that has been described in the notice for the meeting before or during consideration of that item.

(b) The legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of subdivision (a) is carried out, including, but not limited to, regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker.

(c) The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body. Nothing in this subdivision shall confer any privilege or protection for expression beyond that otherwise provided by law.

Gov’t Code § 54954.3

With respect to removing individuals from public meetings, the Brown Act provides that:

In the event that any meeting is willfully interrupted by a group or groups of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible and order cannot be restored by the removal of individuals who are willfully interrupting the meeting, the members of the legislative body conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session.

Only matters appearing on the agenda may be considered in such a session. Representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section.

Nothing in this section shall prohibit the legislative body from establishing a procedure for readmitting an individual or individuals not responsible for willfully disturbing the orderly conduct of the meeting. Gov’t Code § 54957.9.

As you can see, this provision allows for removing individuals from a meeting only when they have “willfully interrupted” the meeting so as to “render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible.”

Obviously, there may often be room to disagree as to whether interruption was willful and whether it rendered the orderly conduct of the meeting unfeasible.

The provision must, however, be applied consistent with the mandate in California’s Constitution that “a statute, court rule, or other authority … shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.”

In addition, note — as you may also already know — that the Brown Act’s public comment requirements create a “limited public forum” under the First Amendment. See Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School Dist., 936 F. Supp. 719, 729 (C.D. Cal. 1996).

Spaces such as sidewalks and parks have traditionally been used for conduct protected by the First Amendment, and are considered “public forums,” and therefore conduct in these forums is protected by the First Amendment and 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.

In between these two extremes are “limited public forums,” or areas 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.

The same high standard that applies to public forums — the restriction must be narrowly drawn and serve a compelling interest — also applies to limited public forums where 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).

Meetings of public bodies typically fit into this “limited public forum” category.

In order to restrict speech in a public forum or limited public forum, reasonable time, place and manner regulations are permissible, but restrictions must be “content neutral” (as opposed to “content based”) and narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and must allow ample alternative channels of communication. Perry Educ. Ass’n, 460 U.S. at 45.

Restrictions on speech in a public forum “must be justified without reference to the protected speech’s content.” ACLU v. City of Las Vegas, 466 F.3d 784, 792 (9th Cir. 2006). Content-neutral restrictions are those that are both viewpoint and subject matter neutral, i.e., do not contain any restrictions based on either the ideology of the message or the topic of the speech, whereas content-based restrictions are those that endeavor to restrict or prohibit speech based on either the viewpoint or subject matter. See, e.g., Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 320 (1988).

Regulations related to public comment, therefore, must be neutrally administered. Baca, 936 F. Supp. at 728-29 (if access to the forum is limited based on subject matter or speaker identity, limitations must be reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and must be viewpoint neutral).

As for next steps, the Brown Act provides that any person may sue to “prevent[] violations … of this chapter by members of the legislative body of a local agency or to determine the applicability of this chapter to actions … of the legislative body.” Gov’t Code § 54960(a).

In other words, you could sue for a determination that the body’s actions in cutting off public comment and/or removing you from the meeting violated the Brown Act (as well as the First Amendment).

Whether you would be likely to prevail in such an action would require a highly fact-intensive analysis that is beyond what we can provide through this service.

You might be able to locate legal assistance through one of the following resources, however:

California State Bar-certified attorney referral services (http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/LawyerReferralServicesLRS.aspx


ACLU of Southern California (http://www.aclu-sc.org/contents/view/6)

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to First Amendment Coalition 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.