Civility in Government Meetings: Balancing First Amendment, Reputational Interests, and Efficiency
39 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2014
Date Written: 2011
The concept of open government implies both transparency and citizen input are inherent in open meetings. This paper focuses on the latter, and specifically on the rules of decorum that apply to public comment sessions at public meetings. Violence at government meetings is rare. However, when angry citizens or disgruntled employees vent their frustrations in public meetings, government business can be impeded and reputational harm can result. In an attempt to maintain civility and the ability to conduct business, government entities often limit the tenor and subject matter of public comment. However, how, what and who can comment at public meetings is not clear from the existing case law.
This paper sets out the factors that government entities should consider in fashioning rules of decorum for public comment that comply with First Amendment dictates and discusses key constitutional principles surrounding citizens’ claims that their voices were silenced at public meetings. The other parts of this paper review some of the situations in which citizens’ input at public meetings impedes government business or offends the sensibilities of others attending the meetings, surveys the different types of state and local laws that govern public session comments discuss the First Amendment principles that local government entities must consider when fashioning rules applicable to public comment sessions, suggests guidelines for local governments to follow when adopting and implementing rules of decorum for public comment sessions at local government meetings, and concludes by suggesting that incivility is inevitable in public discourse and rules of decorum are, at best, aspirational.
Keywords: Open meeting laws, public comments, civility, citizen input, local government, First Amendment
JEL Classification: K10, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation