Illinois Attorney General Supports Right of the Public to Criticize Board Members at Public Meetings
December 18, 2018
In a recent nonbinding letter, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor reportedly requested that public boards allow members of the public to speak about concerns with the conduct of specific board members. Boards and their members are not required to respond to the criticism, and may impose generally applicable, reasonable rules governing conduct and behavior during public comment, but comments should not be excluded simply because they are deemed to be “personal attacks.”
The letter was issued in response to a complaint by a village resident that claimed the village board improperly restricted her comments during a meeting last year. The resident claimed that the village’s conduct violated Section 2.06(g) of the Open Meetings Act, which requires a public body to permit public comment at public meetings. The resident often criticizes the village government. During a September 2017 meeting, village officials interrupted the resident when she was criticizing two trustees, claiming that she was engaging in “personal attacks” that violated the board’s procedural rules. The Attorney General did not find that the village’s conduct violated the Open Meetings Act, but asked the village to allow critical comments of board trustees in the future.
Public bodies should continue to be wary of rules that prohibit criticism of individuals, including board members, employees, and other officials, at public meetings. Indeed, any limitation that is based on the content of speech should be considered carefully, ideally with legal counsel, before implementation. Rules limiting the length of public comment, disruptive speech or conduct, and other reasonable and generally applicable rules may be imposed, however, without running afoul of the OMA.