Citizens of Bay City are now able to speak freely at city commission meetings — even when they talk about city officials or employees in ways the commission might not like.
Last summer, FIRE wrote the city explaining that its code provisions prohibiting certain categories of speech during public comment periods of commission meetings were unconstitutional. That code prohibited public speakers from “demeaning city officials, officers, or employees,” making “[d]erogatory comments directed at another person,” or “using vulgarities.”
But, as we explained to the city, the First Amendment bars public officials from banning speech because they find it offensive or otherwise objectionable. The Supreme Court has ruled that broadly prohibiting all disparaging comments is impermissible viewpoint-based censorship. As we said in our initial letter to the city commission:
It is all too easy to envision the Commission enforcing the rules to suppress criticism of commissioners and other city officials while giving the public free rein to praise the city and its leaders. FIRE has seen it happen before. This double standard contravenes the First Amendment and our country’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”
Nor can the city simply ban all “vulgarities,” regardless of context. Under the former policy, citizens could not even use vulgar language that might be relevant to their comments, such as quoting a vulgarity mentioned in a newspaper or uttered by a government official.
FIRE also explained to the Bay City Commission that its rules were unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, leaving commenters to guess what comments could get them cut off from speaking or ejected from meetings. It also allows city commissioners to subjectively and arbitrarily interpret the rules.
Now, the city has heeded FIRE’s call to amend its policies to comply with the First Amendment. In December, the commission approved amended meeting rules that remove the bans on public comments that are “derogatory,” “vulgar,” or “demeaning” to city officials or employees.
FIRE commends the Bay City Commission for aligning its meeting comment policies with the Constitution. Cities and counties around the country would be wise to review their own comment policies to ensure the same alignment.
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