March 09, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —Warning that representative government works best when the government’s actions are fully disclosed and citizens are allowed to speak honestly and openly to their elected representatives and other citizens without fear of retribution, The Rutherford Institute has issued guidelines for local boards, commissions and councils to consider and follow in order to best assure that the fundamental First Amendment rights of citizens are respected.
In recent years, numerous local boards and commissions have attempted to establish rules and regulations governing speech at public meetings that limit the content and manner of public expression in an attempt to “dial down” the intensity of these meetings and impose a more “civil” discourse. However, these restrictions on expression often run afoul of the First Amendment, making local officials self-appointed censors and arbitrary arbiters of what speech is and is not proper.
“Until recently, local government meetings have remained one of the few legitimate forums available to citizens to personally address their government representatives about decisions that have immediate and substantial impact on their day-to-day lives,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Unfortunately, officials at all levels of government have succeeded in insulating themselves from their constituents through the use of free speech zones, electronic town hall meetings, security barriers, regulations restricting what is said at public meetings, and other tactics that run afoul of the First Amendment’s safeguards for free speech, public assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. These guidelines are intended to empower citizens to push back against those who would stifle the ardor of citizens, arbitrarily silence critics and impede efforts to assure transparency in government.”
The Rutherford Institute issued its guidelines after being contacted by residents of Charlottesville, Va., who were concerned about draconian changes to the City’s public comment rules regarding the content, duration and protocol for making public comments at City Council meetings. The City’s revised procedures include restrictions on video recording, a prohibition on “improper” comments, exclusion of individuals for disruptive or disorderly conduct, and limitations on who may be addressed. In denouncing the guidelines as overly vague and ambiguous, Institute attorneys have advised City officials that the changes to their meeting procedures violate the letter and spirit of Constitution by imposing obstacles to transparency and citizen engagement.
In calling on the Charlottesville City Council to revoke the rules it has adopted in order to ensure that Council meetings remain a forum for free speech, the Institute warned that if the City is serious about being a leader in the fight for open government, it must demonstrate a commitment to public participation in the democratic process. In 2015, Rutherford Institute attorneys advised the Greene County Board of Supervisors (also in Virginia) against rules adopted governing the open forum public comment period during Board meetings that could be used to censor unpopular but constitutionally protected speech.
The Rutherford Institute, a national nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va., defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated and educates the public about threats to their freedoms. The Institute has spent more than 30 years advocating for transparency in government and championing the First Amendment right of the citizenry to speak candidly and openly to their elected representatives and other citizens.
03-09-2016: Warning Against Efforts to Muzzle Citizens & Avoid Transparency, Rutherford Institute Issues 1st Amendment Guidelines for Public Meetings
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