Is Federal Speech Restriction Decision A Warning For Brevard Schools?
Restrictions on public comments similar to those maintained by the Brevard County School Board have been found to violate the First Amendment in a federal court case.
Billy Ison, along with his family and a friend, sued the local Madison, Ohio school board after being kicked out of a school board meeting in 2018 after expressing his displeasure with the school board’s decision to arm staff.
A July 8 ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found: First Amendment.
He noted that Ison spoke calmly in measured tones, refrained from personal attacks and focused on his “strict opposition to Council policies and his belief that the Council was not being honest about his motives.”
Florida does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, which presides over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, so the decision is not binding in Florida.
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The Brevard County School Board’s policy on public participation, last revised in 2014, is very similar to that of the Madison School Board. It states that the chair of a board meeting may âinterrupt, warn or end a participant’s statement when the statement is too long, personally directed, abusive, obscene or irrelevantâ.
In a controversial March 9 school board meeting in which dozens of people arrived to debate accommodation for LGBTQ students, Belford arrested a speaker who referred to the “liberal left”, saying: “We are not going to do name callingâ¦ Anyone speaking tonight.”
Speakers are generally not allowed to criticize anyone, including board members, by name. In previous meetings, speakers have been warned for criticizing Jennifer Jenkins for her support of LGBTQ students and another board member for appearing briefly without wearing a mask in a promotional video for the district.
The restrictions aroused frustration among speakers, some of whom returned to voice their grievances over the policy.
Belford, who was elected to the board in 2014 a few months after the policy update, said the rule prohibiting speakers from making “personally directed” statements was aimed at preventing speakers from making unfounded accusations. against staff members such as teachers.
When members of the public are allowed to launch personal attacks on people in meetings, “no matter how innocent they are, their reputation is ruined,” Belford said.
To fairly enforce policy, the board does not allow speakers to make personal remarks and requires everyone to speak only to the president, Belford said.
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Virginia Hamrick, an attorney with the First Amendment Foundation, said several counties in Florida have similar rules preventing members of the public from criticizing individuals or making obscene statements. Hamrick said the public speaking portions of the meetings are considered limited-purpose public forums. Government officials who conduct these meetings may impose reasonable limits on speaking at such meetings.
Many government meetings limit speaking times to three minutes for members of the public, for example, Hamrick said.
Speakers at open government meetings have rights under both the First Amendment and Florida’s âGovernment in the Sunshineâ law, which governs public access to government meetings.
Under Sunshine Law, members of the public must have a “reasonable opportunity to be heard” on a proposal before a government board or commission. Florida laws state that “does not preclude a board or commission from maintaining orderly conduct or proper decorum at a public meeting.”
But decisions about remarks that meet the definition of obscene or uncivil remarks can be controversial, Hamrick said.
âEven the definition of ‘obscene’ is where the famous phrase from a Supreme Court opinion comes from: ‘I know it when I see it,'” Hamrick said. âIt’s not a great goal. And also with the word âabusiveâ I think that what is âabusiveâ for one person may be different for another. “
In the event of disagreement, it is up to the courts to decide. Hamrick has said that someone who thinks his speech is unfairly reduced has the opportunity to sue his government.
âUnder Sunshine Law, there is a provision that if advice does not provide a reasonable opportunity to be heard, a court has jurisdiction to make an order and require the advice to provide (to that person) a reasonable opportunity to be heard, âHamrick said.
Belford said the school board needs to do its best to decide which comments are breaking the rules at this time. She said she debriefed after every meeting with the board’s general counsel and that he never raised concerns about her application of the rules.
âThere is no dictionary of words that would definitely be ‘abusive’,â Belford said.
Bailey Gallion is the educational journalist for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at [email protected]