Sixth Circuit Says School Board Can't Boot People From Meetings Just Because It Doesn't Like What They're Saying
from the seems-like-an-obvious-conclusion-but-here-we-are dept
Just because government officials may not like the tone of the criticism they’re receiving doesn’t mean they can use their government power to mandate civility. That’s the determination of the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court, which has struck down part of an Ohio school board’s rules of (public) engagement.
Following a school shooting in 2016, the Madison (OH) Local School District came up with a preventative plan — one that involved allowing school staff to carry concealed weapons. This didn’t play well with some parents. It also didn’t play well with some of the district’s students, who staged a walkout to protest gun violence. Following the discipline of those students, some residents decided to attend a school board meeting to express their feelings about the rule change and the punishment of students for their expressive speech.
Madison school district meetings are governed by the following “Public Participation Policy:”
Only Madison residents may participate, and they must limit their speaking time to three minutes. Participants must address the presiding officer, not Board members individually. The Policy authorizes the presiding officer to:
1. prohibit public comments that are frivolous, repetitive, and/or harassing;
2. interrupt, warn, or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, off-topic, antagonistic, obscene, or irrelevant;
3. request any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum; [and]
4. request the assistance of law enforcement officers in the removal of a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting.
Plaintiff Billy Ison attended three meetings from March to May 2018. His May appearance resulted in the Board’s actions that prompted this lawsuit. Here’s how that evening went, according to the Sixth Circuit’s opinion [PDF]:
A video of Billy Ison’s remarks there shows him turning to address the room and reading from a prepared speech, accusing the Board of “threaten[ing]” the school to punish the student protestors. He calls the Board’s justification offered at the prior meeting for punishing “a smokescreen intended to conceal their true motivation . . . to suppress all opposition to pro-gun views” and “push its pro-gun agenda.” And it depicts him accusing the Board of “taking a very strong position on guns” when it decided to arm staff.
The Board interrupted Billy twice during his remarks. First, [Board President David] French asked Billy not to use the word “threatening.” Second, after Billy accused the Board of concealing their “true motivation” for punishing students, another Board member asked him to stop “putting words in [the Board’s] mouth” and saying things “that are not facts.” French then asked Billy to stop and warned that if he continued, security would escort him out. Billy continued, finishing his speech while a security officer escorted him calmly from the room. In total, he spoke just under three minutes. As French later recalled the incident, Billy “was being basically unruly, not following the rules, being hostile in his demeanor.” He let Billy speak “until other people were starting to object and getting offen[d]ed by it.”
Ison sued, claiming the restrictions on speech were unconstitutional, enacted by the Board in hopes of stifling criticism. He argued the Supreme Court’s recent decision involving the registration of disparaging trademarks prevents the government from targeting speech considered “abusive, personally directed, or antagonistic.” The Appeals Court agrees with Ison’s assertions.
In Matal, the Court struck down the Lanham Act’s prohibition on federal registration of trademarks that “‘disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute’ any ‘persons, living or dead.’” 137 S. Ct. at 1751 (alterations in original) (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)). Though split between two plurality opinions, all Justices agreed that the “anti-disparagement” clause discriminated based on viewpoint because “[g]iving offense is a viewpoint.” Id. at 1763 (Alito, J., opinion). The Iancu Court struck down another Lanham Act restriction on “immoral or scandalous” marks, finding it “permit[ted] registration of marks that champion society’s sense of rectitude and morality, but not marks that denigrate those concepts.” 139 S. Ct. at 2299. It reasoned that the act impermissibly “distinguishe[d] between two opposed sets of ideas: those aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them; those inducing societal nods of approval and those provoking offense and condemnation.” Id. at 2300. In short, these cases stand for the proposition that the government may not censor speech merely because it is “offensive to some.”
That this was an attempt to limit criticism of the Board and its members was made even more obvious by the testimony of the Board Director, who testified that “giving offense” was sufficient enough to move the Board to prevent the person from speaking further. Given this testimony and the undisputed video recording of Ison’s comments and ejection from the meeting, the Appeals Court says the Board’s participation policy — at least in terms of its restrictions on certain forms of speech — is unconstitutional.
The restrictions on “antagonistic,” “abusive” and “personally directed” speech prohibit speech because it opposes, or offends, the Board or members of the public, in violation of the First Amendment.
The court notes that this is not a blessing for ad hominem attacks in limited public forums. Attacking ideas and issues is one thing. Personally attacking individuals is quite another. The court says restrictions on this form of speech would likely still be permissible in many cases.
But tossing people from meetings or otherwise silencing them for being critical of government officials and their decisions definitely isn’t permissible. And the Board will likely end up having to rewrite this to be a whole lot less infringe-y and whole lot more specific by the time the lower court is done handling the administrative duties of deciding on a proper remedy.