Controlling ‘audience time’

A little-noticed federal appeals court ruling last month gives a boost to the free speech protections of those who challenge their elected officials at public meetings.

The case stems from a 2002 ordinance passed by the city fathers in Waukegan, Ill., that gave police broader powers to impound the vehicles of those caught driving without a license and proof of insurance.

Some residents of the community felt the law was an attempt to target minorities.

During a rally in 2004 to protest the ordinance, Jose Surita criticized the city’s liaison officer, Susana Figueroa, apparently using some bad words. Two day later, Mr. Surita showed up at a City Council meeting and attempted to speak during “audience time.” Mayor Richard Hyde called Mr. Surita “lower than a rat” and refused to let him proceed unless he apologized to Ms. Figueroa.

Mr. Surita refused and filed suit in federal court. In late December, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Mr. Surita.

While allowing for some discretion in dealing with disruptive behavior, the court found that in setting aside a portion of each meeting to allow public comment, the City Council had created a designated public forum and could not regulate speech on the basis of content.

The mayor’s heavy-handed attempt to extract an apology was thus a violation of Mr. Surita’s First Amendment rights.

“Audience time” is common during meetings of Southern Nevada’s elected bodies, from the School Board to the County Commission and various city councils. While time limits on speakers and other reasonable parameters are necessary to keep meetings moving, the appellate court ruling is another reminder to our elected officials that when trying to control such speech they must err to the greatest extent possible on the side of the speaker.

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