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Federal Court Upholds School Board’s Enforcement of Public Comment Decorum Rules

Education K-12 Education

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recently issued a decision regarding the limited First Amendment protections afforded to speakers who use offensive and disruptive speech at school board meetings.  

In Grant v. Slattery, the plaintiff received a warning letter because, during two separate board meetings, the plaintiff used curse words and removed his mask while inside a school building in violation of an executive order mandating indoor masking. The warning letter addressed the plaintiff’s alleged violation of the district’s civility policy, which sought to keep schools and administrative officers free from “disruptions,” including “unreasonably loud and/or offensively course language.” The plaintiff filed suit in district court, asserting, inter alia, a section 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim and a section 1983 equal protection claim.

Regarding the alleged First Amendment violation, the parties did not dispute that school board meetings are categorized as limited public forums. In a limited public forum, the government is permitted to impose restrictions on the content or topic in individuals’ speeches and expressions, so long as the restrictions are viewpoint neutral and reasonable, given the forum’s purpose. Viewpoint neutral restrictions are those that are equally applied without regard to the speech’s specific message and viewpoint, and may include content-neutral restrictions such as regulations on decorum and disruptions. The court held that the letter’s warning to the plaintiff regarding his “disruptive behavior and use of offensively coarse language” was a content and viewpoint neutral time, place, and manner restriction. The court heavily relied on Moms for Liberty – Brevard County, Florida v. Brevard Public Schools, a factually similar case decided in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. In Moms for Liberty, the court held that the board members’ interruptions and sanctioning of the plaintiff’s “abusive and disruptive” speech during a school board meeting pursuant to a relevant Board policy was both content and viewpoint-neutral, and thus did not violate the First Amendment, because the board members were sanctioning the plaintiff’s actions, not views, to maintain decorum. The Grant court noted that, like the school board members in Moms for Liberty, the warning letter only restricted the plaintiff from exhibiting future disruptive behavior and use of offensive language, not from expressing his opinions on the mask mandate. Significantly, the plaintiffs in Grant and Moms for Liberty were not prohibited from expressing their opinions in future board meetings where they were not being disrespectful or disruptive. The court dismissed the Section 1983 First Amendment Retaliation claim. The court also dismissed the Section 1983 equal protection claim because the plaintiff had not alleged that any similarly situated individuals were treated differently.

While a New Jersey federal court rendered this opinion, it provides helpful guidance and possible comfort for Illinois public bodies that have similar decorum rules to address poor behavior during public comment.

If you have any questions regarding this topic, please reach out to a Franczek attorney.