"A policy allowing only “respectful and courteous” public comments at town meetings violates the state constitution, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

The Massachusetts town of Southborough’s comment policy violated protections for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the top state court ruled March 7.

The policy at issue partly reads: “All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language and/or shouting will not be tolerated.”

Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote the opinion striking down the policy.

“Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting,” wrote Kafker for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

“What can be required is that the public comment session be conducted in an ‘orderly and peaceable’ manner, including designating when public comment shall be allowed in the governmental meeting, the time limits for each person speaking, and rules preventing speakers from disrupting others and removing those speakers if they do.”

The plaintiff in the case, Louise Barron, was accused of violating the civility policy during a town meeting and threatened with physical removal. In her remarks, she said the town was “spending like drunken sailors” and said the town board had violated the state’s open meetings law.

Even though board members are volunteers, “breaking the law is breaking the law,” Barron said."

This article was originally posted in the ABA Journal.

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