Court ruling blocks school board’s attempt to restrict public comments

GEORGIA — A federal appeals court decided Oct. 2 that a Georgia school board’s efforts to pre-approve public speakers at board meetings are unconstitutional. The board has been accused of using a bureaucratic approval process to run down the clock, effectively censoring speakers likely to make unfriendly comments.

The case stems from a 2015 episode in which Jim Barrett, a public school teacher in Walker County, attempted to address the district school board during a public comment period to criticize a change to the school district’s new grading policy.

Under the district’s public comments policy, he was required to first meet with Superintendent Damon Raines to get approval. Although Barrett reached out nearly a month before the school board meeting, Raines did not respond to his initial inquiry for more than a week, and moved slowly throughout the rest of the process. As a result, Barrett’s request was not approved in time for the meeting.

Lawyers for the district argued that their policy was legal because prospective speakers were not required to disclose before meeting with the superintendent what they intended to say to the school board, so there was no risk of content-based discrimination. However, in the decision, 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robin Rosenbaum struck down this reasoning, arguing that in many cases, a speaker’s topic is easily discernible from context clues.

The Daily Report said Barrett’s counsel was pleased with the ruling, which largely upholds a district court decision from last year.

The SPLC previously reported on a rising trend in recent years of school boards attempting to restrict public comments.

Former SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote, “it’s increasingly commonplace for districts to impose restrictions on what members of the public may say during the open-microphone portion of board meetings.”

He called these restrictions “doubtfully legal,” and said there is a “growing consensus of legal authorities that citizens may freely criticize school practices – including named employees – during public meetings.”

Two other recent court rulings—one in Virginia and one in Illinois—overturned school boards’ restrictive public comments policies.

You can read LoMonte’s full analysis here.

SPLC staff writer Samuel Breslow can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @sdkb42.

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