Dickson: No First Amendment rights to yell in city council meetings

May 16, 2023, 2:00 PM

First Amendment rights don't guarantee free speech in a public meeting....

St. George Mayor Michelle Randall speaks during a city council meeting that lead to her changing public comment rules and First Amendment rights. (Screenshot courtesy of St. George City)

(Screenshot courtesy of St. George City)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Contentious public meetings are not a new thing. Utah has seen more than its share of raucous school board meetings, especially during the pandemic. This week, the mayor of St. George, Michelle Randall, decided to close city council meetings because they had become too divisive. That prompted one citizen in attendance at the meeting to quote their First Amendment rights. 

Another citizen, David Johnson of Washington City, said, “The First Amendment is very clear and leaves no doubt what our rights are.”

Not in the constitution

Actually, there is plenty of doubt. Open meeting laws, sometimes called sunshine laws, were not included in the Constitution. They cannot be traced back to common law or common practice during the time when the Bill of Rights was passed.

They are a relatively new development. The movement to require open government meetings began in the 1950s, and by 1976, all states and the District of Columbia had adopted sunshine laws. These laws vary from state to state, but in general require that all public meetings be open to the public, with some exceptions.

Utah’s open meetings law also provides that any citizen who “willfully disrupts a meeting can be removed from that meeting.”

Additionally, our sunshine law only applies to “the state, its agencies and political subdivisions.”

Courts have answered this question

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at this issue in Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa. There the court said that a person’s speech must actually disrupt the city council meeting before the person can be removed. The Fourth Circuit also said that public officials must have the discretion to cut off speech “which they reasonably perceive to be a disruption.” See Steinburg v. Chester County Planning Commission.

The bottom line misunderstanding that many Americans struggle with is their belief that rights are absolute.

You may hear someone say in conversation: “If I own my home, I ought to be able to do whatever I want with it.”

Property law does not convey an absolute right. Your ownership is subject to restrictions, including taxes and eminent domain. You’ll also hear people talk about their gun ownership rights in absolute terms, but you must be a certain age and go through a background check, among other restrictions, in order to legally buy a gun.

Likewise, your freedom of speech, in city council meetings and elsewhere, is not absolute. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater (to name the famous one), and you can’t use speech to incite imminent violence. Speech rights are most protected in public forums, but the city council chamber is considered a limited public forum.

Because it is limited, the government is allowed to impose “time, place and manner restrictions” on the exercise of your free speech rights.

Amanda Dickson is the co-host of Utah’s Morning News and A Woman’s View.

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Dickson: No First Amendment rights to yell in city council meetings