A&A: The Mayor Interrupted Me During Public Comment Period of a City Council Meeting. What Can I Do?

Q: I was speaking during the public comment portion of a city council meeting on the topic of the California Fair Political Practices Commission Form 460. The Mayor stopped me three times during my three minutes of public comment and I repeatedly said that I was within my three minutes. I urged the city attorney determine whether the mayor was violating the California Brown Act and the 1st Amendment. I was ignored and felt like my 1st amendment freedom of speech had been violated. Please advise.

A: Unfortunately, we cannot provide individual representation through this hotline. If you seek representation, we recommend speaking with a local lawyer, who can provide you with specific legal advice. A good place to start would be the County Bar Association’s lawyer referral service.

We can provide you with general information about the Brown Act and public comment periods. As you know, the Brown Act requires that the public be afforded the right to speak at meetings where the Brown Act applies. Cal. Gov. Code § 54954.3. The Brown Act further allows legislative bodies to establish “reasonable” rules to limit the time allocated to each individual speaker or an individual issue. Id. In Constitutional terms, courts usually consider the public comment period of a Brown Act meeting to be a “limited public forum.” See Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 936 F. Supp. 719, 729 (C.D. Cal. 1996). Therefore, the First Amendment provides some—but not unlimited—protection for expression in the context of a Brown Act meeting.  

In the context of the limited public forums that can be established at public meetings, “[c]itizens have an enormous first amendment interest in directing speech about public issues to those who govern their city.” White v. City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421, 1425 (9th Cir. 1990). However, this is balanced with the public body’s need to “be addressed and deal[] with its agenda. Public forum or not, the usual first amendment antipathy to content-oriented control of speech cannot be imported into the Council chambers intact.” Id. While the governmental body may not stop a speaker from speaking because the moderator disagrees with the viewpoint expressed, it may stop the speaker if his or her speech becomes irrelevant or repetitious. Id.  A speaker may also be stopped where he or she becomes “disruptive” in a manner that would not meet the test for “actual breach of the peace … or of ‘fighting words’ likely to provoke immediate combat.” Id.  Disruption may occur where the speaker speaks too long, is unduly repetitious, or extends discussion of irrelevancies so that the legislative body is prevented from accomplishing its business in a reasonably efficient manner. Id. at 1426. 

As indicated by the above discussion, the public has an “enormous” First Amendment interest in addressing members of the government, which can only be regulated via “reasonable” rules that do little more than ensure the meeting can proceed in a timely and orderly fashion by limiting the time allocated to each speaker and topic. Whether or not the city council properly limited your time is necessarily a fact-specific inquiry, so we cannot state for certain if you would have a valid legal claim against the city council. Therefore, we would recommend contacting a local lawyer, who can provide you with specific legal advice.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.