Legal Alerts Sep 20, 2018

Public Entities Can Limit Public Comment Speaking Time at Meetings

California Appellate Court Finds Limit Did Not Violate Brown Act or First Amendment

Public entities can place reasonable time restrictions on public comment at their meetings as long as the time restrictions do not violate state or federal law, a California appellate court said in a fairly sweeping decision. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s determination that a city transit board’s restriction of public comment to 3 minutes, per person, per agenda item, did not violate the Ralph M. Brown Act “open meeting” law or the First Amendment right to free speech. The court also held that the transit board properly allowed staff and invited speakers to speak for longer than the 3 minute time limit imposed on the public.
This opinion in Ribakoff v. City of Long Beach, et al. continues a line of cases that recognizes a public entity’s ability to put reasonable restrictions on public comment during public meetings. These opinions properly strike a balance between the public’s need to address their elected officials, while also allowing the public entity to manage meetings and complete them in a reasonably efficient manner.
Ribakoff regularly attended meetings of the Long Beach Transit Company Board of Directors, which is subject to the Brown Act’s open meeting requirements. Board policy required each public speaker to fill out a public comment card, which informed the speaker of the 3 minute limit to address the Board. Ribakoff filled out a card and spoke for 3 minutes on one agenda item, and then attempted to speak to the Board a second time on the same item, but was not allowed to speak. Ribakoff sued, claiming time and subject matter restrictions and discrimination in violation of the Brown Act and the First Amendment.
The appellate court determined that the 3 minute time restriction was reasonable and did not violate the Brown Act or the First Amendment. First, the Brown Act expressly authorizes public entities to put reasonable restrictions on the amount of time a speaker can speak at a meeting and the appellate court concluded that the 3 minute restriction was reasonable. Additionally, the appellate court held the restriction did not violate the First Amendment because it was a content neutral restriction that simply limited the amount of time for speech and not what was said.
Ribakoff also argued that the restriction violated the law because it was not uniformly applied to all speakers, specifically staff and invited speakers. The appellate court concluded that the Board had a reasonable justification for treating invited speakers differently. Finally, contrary to Ribakoff’s contention, speech at government meetings is not unlimited and public entities can limit speech at meetings based on time and even some types of content — i.e. requiring a speaker to address only the topic or agenda item at issue.
For more information about this decision and how it may impact your agency, contact the author of this Legal Alert listed at the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group or your BB&K attorney.
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