BCC to discuss public speakers’ rights Tuesday: Memo from County’s Legal Department here

 

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: The Martin County Board of County Commissioners has made a last-minute addition to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting to discuss limiting the rights of residents who wish to make public comments before the Commission.

Below is the long-awaited memorandum from the County’s Legal Department (issued yesterday) which contains an analysis of legal authority related to the First Amendment rights of citizens to freely express themselves (freedom of speech).

The memo does not address the right to petition government for redress of grievances, which is also an important component of the First Amendment and allows citizens to seek relief from government misconduct or rules like those which restrict public comment.

Essentially, the County’s legal staff appears to agree with citizens who have complained that Commission Chair Ed Ciampi’s announced plan to prohibit residents from criticizing or even uttering the names of any individual commissioners during public comment is a violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.

The memorandum notes that a federal court sided with the public in a challenge to a California School District rule prohibiting public comment or complaints “against any employee of the District”, finding that the policy was censorship on its face because it suppressed viewpoints of residents. 

The County Legal Department also pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has admonished local governments that restrictions on speech at public meetings that have the effect of prohibiting debate over public issues “including qualifications and performance of public officials” are unconstitutional. 

The memorandum cites federal court rulings that conclude that expressing opinions at public board meetings on the performance of officials lies at the heart of the First Amendment and must be protected.

The final conclusion of the County’s Legal Department is that there is no hard and fast rule for determining the extent to which the public may be prohibited from addressing an individual commissioner or staff in making public comments.  Restrictions on speech must be reasonable and must relate to “time, place and manner” of speech.  There can be no restriction on the content of the speech of the viewpoint expressed.

A speaker may be asked to address the Board as a whole “but would be permitted to make positive or negative comments regarding an individual in relation to the business of the County,” the County Legal Department concluded, although personal attacks or speech that causes disruption to the Board meeting may be restricted.

Tuesday’s meeting is a joint meeting with the School Board and Stuart City Commissioners, which will take place in the morning at the Blake Library.  The regular BCC meeting will not start until the conclusion of the joint meeting, so it is not possible to predict when the First Amendment item will be heard by the Commission. 

Despite Commissioner Ciampi’s assurance that he will schedule pre-set times for items which draw public interest so that residents may attend and be heard, the Free Speech Agenda Item (Item 8B3) has not been given a pre-set time.  (Three other items on the agenda have been given pre-set times to allow for those who are interested to attend and participate.)

Anyone who wishes to address this matter should plan to do so at the public comment portion of the meeting at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday at the Blake Library if you are unable to attend the entire meeting and wait for the item to be called up after the BCC convenes in Commission Chambers following the joint meeting.

 

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