Civil discourse among School Board members and members of the public who attend meetings is necessary for the orderly administration of School District business. However, as Board Members, it is important to remember that citizens enjoy the protections of the First Amendment in attending public meetings, even under circumstances in which their speech may be considered disruptive.
In a recent 2017 case decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Barna v. Board of School Directors of the Panther Valley School District, a member of the public had engaged in disruptive and, at times, threatening behavior over the course of several Board meetings. The Board informed him that he was banned from attending future Board meetings because his conduct had become intolerable. He sued the School Board and seven Board Members in their official and individual capacities for what he claimed was a violation of his First Amendment right to address the Board at public meetings.
The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania implied that the member of the public had a viable claim because the Board’s ban on his future attendance at meetings was “not sufficiently tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” However, the District Court held that the Board and its members enjoyed qualified immunity and dismissed the lawsuit.
On appeal, the Third Circuit took no position on the viability of the First Amendment claim and simply held that the Board members did not enjoy qualified immunity in their official capacities (although they were immune individually). The Third Circuit vacated the District Court’s determination on the issue of official capacity qualified immunity and remanded the case back to the District Court. Based on the District Court’s initial opinion, it is likely that the Court will find that the School District’s attempt to ban the member of the public from future meetings violates his First Amendment rights. School Board members must recognize the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings, even when individuals engage in conduct that could be considered disruptive. Absent some extenuating circumstances, such as threats of violence, Boards cannot preemptively bar individuals from attending meetings even though the individual has been disruptive in the past.
Of course, School Boards are not without recourse to curtail disruptive behavior at their meetings. School Boards have the right to conduct meetings free from disruption, and it is appropriate to remove individuals whose behavior prevents the Board from conducting the District’s business. Meetings of school boards are considered “limited public forums.” As a limited public forum, a School Board meeting is not open for endless public commentary but, instead, is simply a limited platform to discuss topics at hand. In a limited public forum, the government may impose restriction on a speaker’s speech, so long as the restrictions are designed to confine the forum to the limited and legitimate purposes for which it was created. The government may not regulate speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction. The government, however, may restrict the time, place and manner of speech, as long as those restrictions are reasonable and serve the purpose for which the government created the limited public forum. A time, place, and manner restriction on speech is reasonable if it is (1) content-neutral, (2) narrowly tailored to serve an important governmental interest, and (3) leaves open ample alternatives for communication of information. In layman’s terms, it is appropriate for a School Board to create uniform policies that impose a reasonable time limit on a speaker’s comments and require the speaker to observe appropriate decorum. The Board could remove the individual for disrupting the meeting for violating these policies. However, a School Board would violate a speaker’s First Amendment rights if it removed a speaker due to the content of the speech. For example, while a School Board could remove a speaker for disrupting the meeting, it could not remove the speaker if the Board did not like the fact that the speaker commented negatively on the Board’s spending practice.
If you have any questions regarding the conduct of Board Meetings, including the public comment portion of the Meeting, the Education Law Team at Maiello, Brungo & Maiello at 412-242-4400 is available to answer your questions.