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Meeting Discussion: When Should You Interrupt a Speaker?


December 27, 2018 by Ann G. Macfarlane
Category: Legislative Body , Council-Commission Advisor

Meeting Discussion: When Should You Interrupt a Speaker?

Editor's note: This post was updated on 12/28/2018 to provide additional clarification.

We see so many instances of rude behavior in public life today that it is not easy to keep our bearings about civility. Polite people who have been well brought up sometimes feel stymied when public discourse disintegrates.

Thus, it might be helpful to review some circumstances in which board members or councilmembers should be interrupted during a meeting. Sometimes we have to interrupt a speaker in order to preserve politeness and fairness for all.

Note that these guidelines apply only to the members of the body – the elected or appointed councilmembers or board members – and not to members of the public. When dealing with members of the public, there are additional First Amendment considerations. Review these previous blog posts for the First Amendment overlay to interrupting speakers at public meetings: The First Amendment is Not the Last Word and Balancing the Council’s Right to Manage Meetings With Expectations of Citizens.

A speaker who is rude and offensive. 

Speakers who make personal and insulting remarks, question motives, or show discourtesy in other ways must be stopped. The chair of the meeting has the responsibility to do this, even when it means interrupting. The gavel can be helpful here – a single firm tap will often be effective.

A speaker who breaks the rules. 

When someone breaks the rules that your group has in place for conducting meetings, stop this person. If members of the council are required to seek recognition from the chair, don't let a councilmember blurt something out of turn. If you have implemented that supremely useful rule—that no one may speak a second time until everyone has spoken once—don't let an old-timer have a second chance to talk while the newly elected is waiting patiently a turn.

A speaker who interrupts to make a "Point of Order" when a procedural mistake has been made. 

When a member notices that a significant procedural mistake has been made, that person should call out loudly, "Point of Order." The chair has the duty to ask what the point is, and then to rule as to whether it is correct (the jargon term for correct is "well taken," the term for incorrect is "not well taken").

For example, if the chair has called for a vote without allowing any discussion, a member can bring this to everyone's attention. Since a Point of Order must be made in a timely manner, it can interrupt a speaker. If a chair fails to do anything in the situations listed above, an ordinary member of the group can use this motion to take action and stop the offense.

A speaker who interrupts to call for a "division" when it seems that the chair may have made an error in announcing the result of a vote. 

After a voice vote, the chair has the duty of announcing the results. If it seems that the chair may have made an error, any member may call out "Division." The chair is then obliged to retake the vote in such a way that everyone can ascertain the results. On a city council, requesting a "roll call vote" will achieve the same result.

Under Robert's Rules, the examples I have provided are the most significant instances in which a speaker should be interrupted. If your council, commission, or other governing body has not adopted specific rules of procedure, it is still appropriate under common parliamentary law to use these techniques when things go awry.

Additional Thoughts

And one final and important point. If you as a member or as the presiding officer decide to let some infraction of the rules go by and not raise a Point of Order to correct the error (or even if you don't realize that there was an error committed at all), it will most likely be too late to do anything about it later on. Most points of order must be raised very promptly right when the infraction occurs, or else it is just too late. There are a small number of very serious errors recognized by Robert's Rules that can be corrected well after the fact, but these are rather rarely encountered.

Don't let a false sense of not wanting to be a "troublemaker" cause you to delay interrupting and making your Point of Order. It is your right and duty to do so.

Resources

For further reading, download the Citizen’s Guide to Effective Conduct of Public Meetings Using Parliamentary Procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order in Washington State.  Prepared by a team of parliamentarians, this free resource explains in plain English the respective roles of mayor or chair, members of the body, and the public, and answers many questions that have arisen over the years about the right way to run public meetings.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

About Ann G. Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments, and blogs regularly at www.jurassicparliament.com.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Ann G. Macfarlane

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Comments

"Melissa, there is no right or wrong time to address this, but I would recommend you bring it up when it becomes an issue. If the public cannot hear or understand what is being said at the meeting, it seems to me, the meeting is not really open to the public. As soon as it is clear that the councilmembers or other meeting participants cannot be heard, raise the issue. There are ADA requirements when a member of the public has a hearing disability. In those instances I’d suggest that a person with hearing problems bring it up in advance of the meeting, asking for an accommodation, thus giving the agency an opportunity to do something to allow the person to hear."

Paul Sullivan on Jan 10, 2019 2:52 PM

"As a member of the public, what is the appropriate way to interrupt to indicate that members of the board should speak up and/or that the amplification on audio equipment should be turned up?"

Melissa Shumake on Jan 10, 2019 11:09 AM

"Thanks, Ann. That's very helpful. And thanks for the links to the previous posts on the topic of public comment!"

Toby Nixon on Dec 28, 2018 5:52 PM

"Dear Toby, Yes, you are correct, the guidelines given above apply to members of the council or board during their meeting, but not to members of the public. The council can institute rules about time, place and manner of public comment, as long as they are viewpoint-neutral. They may not have rules restricting the content of public comment. Members of the public may not disrupt a meeting, but mere words or gestures do not equal disruption. The post has been updated to clarify this. Thanks very much for writing. Ann"

Ann Macfarlane on Dec 28, 2018 12:25 PM

"Thanks, Ann. I have a question about speakers being rude and offensive during public comment periods. The guidance we've received from our city attorney is that speakers have the right to say virtually anything during public comment periods. We can tell them to defer comments to a public hearing later in the meeting if they signed up for the wrong agenda item. We can tell them to not speak for or against candidates or ballot measures because state law doesn't allow city resources to be used for campaign purposes. We can hold them to time limits, and stop them from speaking out of turn. But that's about it -- if they want to use profanity, call council members names, question motives, even make Nazi salutes, we have to let them do it because of the 1st Amendment. Your guidance is that cities can be more restrictive than that?"

Toby Nixon on Dec 27, 2018 1:41 PM

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