Public Entities Have Discretion to Limit Public Comment

Fall River
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Public Entities Have Discretion to Limit Public Comment

  • By: Margaret E. Long

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has recently affirmed public entities’ ability to limit public comment during meetings.  In the case of Bezis v. City of Livermore, the Livermore City Council was considering whether to establish a downtown planning steering committee and plaintiff spoke during public comment.  During his public comment, he focused on an unrelated action that the Council took the month before. He was admonished several times to keep his comments focused on the agenda item under consideration, but he was never removed from the podium. He later brought this First Amendment action against the City, alleging that his speech was stifled due to the interruptions of his comments and that the City engaged in viewpoint discrimination. 

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the City, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that city council meetings are limited public forums in which it is appropriate to make reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech, as long as those regulations are viewpoint neutral and enforced in a neutral manner. The district court properly concluded the restrictions made on his speech at the City Council meeting did not impinge on his First Amendment rights since the Council was entitled to restrict comments to agenda items. 

Local governments have a great deal of discretion in managing their meetings.  While it is important to keep your rules neutral, asking speakers to “stay on topic” or address matters “within your agencies’ jurisdiction” is entirely appropriate. Please consult your legal counsel if you have any questions or concerns about governance rules or limiting public comment.

Bezis v. City of Livermore, 2021 U.S.App.LEXIS 14910 (9th Cir. May 19, 2021), petition for rehearing en banc pending (filed June 2, 2021)