PAC Upholds School Board’s Limitation on Public Comment Duration
In a recent decision, the Public Access Counselor (PAC)—the division of the Attorney General that reviews appeals regarding the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA)—found that a board of education did not impermissibly restrict public comment by limiting the duration of public comment and time for comment. The PAC reasoned that the board appropriately established and recorded rules related to public comment and permissibly restricted comments during the meeting pursuant to its rules. Although the PAC decision is not binding, its decision provides helpful guidance for public bodies regarding reasonable time constraints on public comment.
In this case, the Board of Education of Evanston Township High School District 202 requested that public comments be submitted prior to the Board meeting via e-mail (the Board meeting was held remotely in compliance with the OMA). The Board received 81 written comments in advance of the meeting. The Board’s policy regarding public participation at Board meetings stated that public comments would be limited to three minutes per person and that the maximum period for public comment is 60 minutes. The policy allowed the Board President to allocate time among speakers to ensure public comment would not exceed the 60-minute timeframe.
During the Board meeting in question, the Board President limited individual comments to 45 seconds to fit within the 60-minute timeframe for public comment. The Board, however, was only able to read 68 of the 81 comments it received into the record within the 60-minute timeframe. The Board also posted all comments it received in full, including those not read, following the meeting. Subsequently, a community member filed a Request for Review with the PAC, alleging the Board violated the OMA by placing time restrictions on both individual comments and the public comment period generally.
The PAC found that the Board did not violate the OMA. The PAC reasoned that the Board clearly included the limitations on public comment in its policy. Here, the PAC found that limiting each comment to 45 seconds was not unreasonable due to the number of comments received in advance of the meeting. The PAC held that the Board’s decision to fit in as many comments as possible by instituting the 45 second time limitation to meet the 60-minute total public comment time limit was reasonable. The PAC recognized that had the Board not reduced its three-minute rule for individual comments, it would have had to set aside more than four hours for public comment or only read 20 of the 81 comments into the record. Further, the PAC looked favorably upon the fact that the Board used the full 60 minutes it allotted for public participation and read the comments in the order they were received, with no preference for certain comments. Therefore, the PAC concluded that the Board permissibly restricted public comment pursuant to its published policies on public participation. While this case involved a virtual board meeting, the PAC made clear that this decision may extend to public comment restrictions for in-person board meetings as well.
Given the difficult and time-consuming meetings many school boards have faced recently, including a total time limit for public comment and, in certain situations, limiting individual public comments to a reduced time, is a strategy boards may wish to consider. If school boards are interested in including time restraints regarding public comment, those limitations should be included in board policy. We have worked with several school district clients in reviewing and revising public comment policies to address the challenges boards are currently facing. Please reach out to a Franczek attorney if your board wishes to review its current public comment practices.