Sterling, Massachusetts: Unconstitutionally limits on comments at town meetings


Case Overview

FIRE Victory closed

At the October 2023 Special Town Meeting in Sterling, Mass., the meeting moderator verbally prohibited “disparaging” comments during the public comment section of the meeting. The moderator enforced the rule against one speaker attempting to comment on a Board of Health employee’s possible conflict of interest.

On May 2, FIRE wrote the town explaining the First Amendment protects residents' right to comment on matters of public concern, including comments officials may find offensive or “disparaging.” FIRE urged the town to eliminate the unconstitutional ban and also filed a public records request on April 30 to verify whether Sterling has formally adopted a policy prohibiting “disparaging” comments.

At the subsequent May 6 town meeting, the moderator did not announce or enforce a prohibition on “disparaging” comments, and on May 8, town officials confirmed to FIRE that they had no formal rules governing public comments.