Can Standing Silently for 65 Seconds Constitute a Threat?

Just go read this: “You Made People Uncomfortable”.

There you will learn that although citizens can comment for three minutes at a Huntsville City Schools Board of Education meeting, if they fail to use their allotted 180 seconds, standing silently for the remainder and awaiting an answer is forbidden.

 Here’s an excerpt, but really, just click through.

Thursday night I was informed by Mr. Lankford [head of Board Security] that if I wish to speak during the Citizen’s Comments section of the board meeting, I would not be allowed to stand silently waiting for an answer. I would have to speak and then sit down. The consequences of pulling this “stunt” again would mean that I would be banned from all future board meetings. Mr. Lankford went on to inform me that I had made “everyone” feel uncomfortable and that he considered my actions as a threat. He certainly hoped that I didn’t intend to threaten others.

I wonder if the First Amendment Center  would take a stand on the legality of a School Board telling a citizen that he better be babbling for the full 180 seconds allotted to him or else sit down.

They have recently reported on a case where an appeallate court ruled against a mayor who wouldn’t let a citizen speak until he first apologized to a city employee:

. . . the appellate court agreed that the city council, by allowing “audience time,” had created a designated public forum and accordingly could not regulate speech on the basis of the speech’s content.

And this is all rather interesting reading, too, regarding speaking at public meetings.

A federal district court in California invalidated a school district bylaw that prohibited people at school board meetings from criticizing school district employees. In Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District (1997), the court wrote: “It seems clear that the Bylaw’s prohibition on criticism of District employees is a content-based regulation. … It is equally clear that the District’s concerns and interests in proscribing public commentary cannot outweigh the public’s fundamental right to engage in robust public discourse on school issues.”

 Similarly, a federal district court in Virginia struck down a school board bylaw that prohibited personal attacks during public comments at meetings. (See Bach v. School Board of the City of Virginia Beach, 2001.)

Before each citizen’s comments section at Huntsville City Schools Board meeting, a little statement is read including,

We request that no one make any disparaging remarks, comments or statements pertaining to the good name and character of any individual.

It’s a good thing that they use that phrase “we request” since it seems in light of the above that they cannot require people to be nice.

But remember, in this case there is no dispute about whether the speaker’s remarks were “disparaging.” He was threatened with being “banned from all future board meetings” for saying nothing at all for 65 seconds.

Reading of my friend’s encounter at the School Board, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this classic moment of hypocrisy:

Clinton wasn’t “interrupted” by a heckler. A 71-year-old man stood up in the aisle, said not a word, and turned his back on our Secretary of State as she talked about freedom of speech. Only when he was manhandled and dragged out by two security guards did he “interrupt” to ask, “So this is America?”.

Stay tuned.

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2 thoughts on “Can Standing Silently for 65 Seconds Constitute a Threat?

  1. WOW. I sit on a Board in Ann Arbor, MI. Our usual problem is keeping people to the four minute allotment. If folks DO have questions, we have a time allotted for board response after the public comment time. More often than not, the response is more about the channels to get an appropriate response (one of our committees, or in way too many cases, that they are addressing the wrong board altogether). I can’t IMAGINE not replying in some fashion, even if it is just to acknowledge that the question had been asked. Again…WOW.

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