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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Warns Greene County Board of Supervisors Against Muzzling Speech During Open Comment Periods at Board Meetings

GREENE COUNTY, Va. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have advised the Greene County Board of Supervisors that rules recently adopted governing the open forum public comment period during Board meetings could be used to censor unpopular but constitutionally protected speech, thereby resulting in First Amendment violations.

This open forum section of the meetings had been held to allow the public to express themselves on matters of concern that might not otherwise be included on the Board’s agenda. However, the Board changed the rules in order to expand the authority of the chairman of the board to determine who can speak and what topics may be addressed, as well as requiring that remarks be addressed only to the chairman, prohibiting “disrespectful” speech and punishing anyone who violates the public comment rules with banishment from participation in the meeting.

In reviewing the rules and regulations on the open forum public comment period that were adopted by the Greene County Board of Supervisors on July 28, 2015, Rutherford Institute attorneys have concluded that the regulations unwisely restrict a quintessential citizens forum and should be revoked in order to reopen the public comment period as a free forum for speech.

“Public meetings of local legislative boards have historically served as the quintessential citizens forum—giving individuals the opportunity to be speak on the issues important to the community and to address directly those who have the authority to take action on those matters. Instead of seeking to restrict the ability of citizens to communicate with their representatives, the Board should be seeking to maintain an open and robust exchange of views with the people of the County,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “For citizens to feel vested in their government, they must know that they are free to express their views and be heard by their representatives.”

On July 28, 2015, the Greene County Board of Supervisors adopted new rules that put restrictions on public comment at meetings. Supervisors claimed that the rules were put in place to “deal with a toxic environment during the meetings. They say a handful of commenters were using it as a forum to make rude accusations against county staffers, and that the comments prevented others from feeling comfortable sharing their opinions at the meeting.” However, in analyzing the Board’s new rules, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute concluded that the adopted rules are contrary to freedom generally allowed for speech at public meetings. The new rules expand the authority of the chairman of the board to determine who can speak and what topics may be addressed, as well as requiring that remarks be addressed only to the chairman, prohibiting “disrespectful” speech and punishing anyone who violates the public comment rules with banishment from participation in the meeting.

In urging the Board to revoke the adopted rules, Institute attorneys point out that “a fundamental principle of First Amendment jurisprudence is that laws and rules must not grant unfettered discretion to a governmental person or entity which determines whether and who may engage in protected expression.” Moreover, Institute attorneys took issue with the Board’s vague and ambiguous subject matter restriction, noting that such ambiguity is again inconsistent with the First Amendment because it allows censorship of speech by government officials on the basis of disagreement with the speaker’s message instead of on some principled basis.

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