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Public Law

Public Law Journal: Spring 2015, Vol. 38, No. 2

Harassing Speech in a Limited Public Forum: A Double-Edged Liability Sword

By Rachel H. Sommovilla*

I. INTRODUCTION

As most public law attorneys know, members of the public can make some offensive and hostile remarks during the public comment period of a public meeting. Seattle, for example, has a regular commenter who refers to its councilmembers as Nazis, communists, and the Gestapo, and who peppers his comments with expletives. In September 2014, that city council rejected that commenter’s appeal of his exclusion from council chambers for off-point, abusive disruptions at council meetings.1 That same month, the city council of Richmond, California adopted measures to address meeting disruptions resulting from anti-gay rhetoric during the public comment portion of its meetings.2

Legislative bodies have the right and the duty to conduct their meetings in an orderly manner. Citizens have a constitutional right—and a statutory right under the Brown Act—to address such a local public body. And public employees have a general right to be free from a hostile work environment. The challenge is to balance these sometimes competing interests in the context of a public meeting.

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