Speech and Public Comment in School Board Meetings
A recent ruling against the Walker County School District has the Georgia administration system paying attention to their rules and procedures. The lawsuit was filed by a teacher in a Walker County school. The suit targeted a policy around public comment at School Board meetings. The Judge found that the School Board meetings required speech protections under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.
The teacher in this case wanted to speak on a new grading standard which would apply to students across the district. Walker County’s policy required the teacher, Jim Barrett, to take his concerns to the Superintendent before appearing in front of the School Board and the public at a Board meeting. Barrett followed the instructions, but was not placed on the agenda for the next meeting.
Barrett was an outspoken critic of the grading standard. He wanted to make his comments publicly before the Board and the community.
Even though Barrett is a teacher in the Walker County School system, the Court found that his speech was protected by the 1st Amendment. School Board meetings (like other government meetings open to the public) are a limited public forum where speech has special guarantees. Any rules about speech at a public meeting must be content-neutral. This means rules cannot be based on what someone says, only how they say it. For example, meeting limits may be placed around the time someone has to speak or the amount of public commentary allowed during specific portions of the meeting.
Judge Murphy , in the Northern District of Georgia, found that Walker County’s policy allowed the Superintendent to decide who could speak in a meeting based on what they were going to say, not how they were going to say it. Thus, the policy was not content-neutral.
The ruling provides helpful information to School Districts regarding how to create a process for students, teachers, and the public to comment at open meetings. Decisions on who can appear should not be affected in any way by what the person wants to speak about (assuming what they have to say has to do with something that’s relevant to the District). The Judge also noted that this includes complaints against District employees or Board members. District policies should lay out a clear timeline, procedure, and content-neutral guidelines for public comment.