Addressing Disruptions at Public Meetings
By Ramsey Ramerman, Assistant City Attorney, City of Everett
When members of the public disrupt a public meeting, the disruption poses several challenges for the governing body. A recent incident at a local school district highlights the procedural hoops a governing body must go through if they attempt to address the disruption by adjourning the meeting and reconvening it in another location. A recent federal case from California exposes liability risks when the governing body seeks to have a person removed from the meeting. Both incidents provide lessons for governing bodies seeking to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
Mechanics of Adjourning and Reconvening a Public Meeting After a Disruption
The local school district board was facing a crowd of nearly 500 attendees angry about the board's proposed action of accepting the resignation of a popular school principal. The crowd erupted with the board prepared to vote, disrupting the meeting preventing the vote. The board then voted to adjourn the meeting and reconvened at the district offices to conclude the meeting. The press was provided notice of the new location and was in attendance.
The OPMA expressly provides that adjournment as one of the three possible remedies for addressing disruptions. Removing the disrupters and having the room cleared are the other two options. See RCW 42.30.050. But for the adjournment option to work, the governing body must take several actions:
- First, governing body must vote to adjourn the meeting and vote on the new location. RCW 42.56.050.
- Second, governing body must provide the media in attendance with notice of the new location, who have a right to attend unless they were part of the disruption. RCW 42.56.050.
- Third, governing body must post an order of adjournment, citing the new time and location, at the doorway of the location of the disrupted meeting. RCW 42.56.090.
- Fourth, governing body may only take final action on items listed on the agenda for the adjourned meeting. RCW 42.56.050.
- Finally, governing body is authorized to adopt procedures for allowing members of the public into the reconvened meeting. RCW 42.56.050.
Implicit in this final point is that, other than the media, the reconvened meeting may be held without the public in attendance. Unless the entire crowd was involved in the disruption, however, keeping the meeting closed to the public will likely undercut public trust in the governing body's actions. Therefore, the best practice would be to have procedures adopted ahead of time to address re-admittance.
The governing body must be careful, however, that the rules do not allow, and are not administered to allow, the governing body to discriminate on who is allowed to attend based on the attendee's viewpoint. The only factor should be whether the attendee was involved in the prior disruption. Otherwise, some of the First Amendment concerns discussed below will arise.
The failure to follow the OPMA's procedures for disruptions and adjournment can have serious consequences. Any actions taken in violation of the OPMA are considered "null and void." RCW 42.30.060. Moreover, members who knowingly violate the OPMA can be personally fined. Finally, the entity will be liable for any attorney fees.
Risks of Having Disruptive Persons Removed from a Meeting
As noted, a governing body can also address disruptions by having the disrupting audience members removed. But the case of Norse v. City of Santa Cruz, 629 F.3d 966 (2010), the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, shows that such actions should be taken cautiously. In that case, the court held that city councilmembers can be held personally liable for ordering the ejection of an attendee at a city council meeting. Washington State is in the Ninth Circuit, so this case is binding authority. Moreover, although the case involves the ejection of a single individual, the holding could also apply when a governing body ejects all attendees.
In Norse, the attendee was ejected after making a silent Nazi salute. The councilmembers said this action violated the dignity and decorum of the city council. The city council asserted that its rules classified violations of dignity and decorum as "disruptions" that justified the ejection. The court rejected this claim.
The court held that city council meetings are considered limited public forums, so First Amendment protections apply. Under the First Amendment, time, place and manner restrictions are permissible as long as they are viewpoint neutral. Such restrictions can allow for the ejection of an attendee, but only if the attendee's actions disrupt, disturb or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the meeting.
In this case, there was no evidence that the Nazi salute caused a disruption - instead it appeared that the attendee was ejected because the councilmembers did not like the viewpoint the attendee expressed with his action. An ejection based on the attendee's expressed viewpoint would violate the attendee's First Amendment rights.
In rejecting the city's claims, the court made two important points. First, it held that the First Amendment protections apply throughout the entire meeting - not just during a time designated for public comment. Second, for an ejection to be proper, there must be an actual disruption - the city could not define disruption to mean something less than a disruption.
Several lessons can be learned from this case.
- The entire open meeting is a limited public forum where First Amendment protections apply.
- Governing body rules should clearly provide the governing body with the authority to eject members of the public who disrupt meetings.
- The governing body should tolerate offensive conduct by attendees as long as the conduct does not cause an actual disruption.
- The governing body should attempt other methods to address a perceived disruption before resorting to ejection.
- The governing body should treat all disruptions in a similar manner so it cannot be claimed that a decision to eject was based on the viewpoint expressed rather than the disruption itself.
- The governing body should never limit an attendee's speech because it does not like the viewpoint expressed.
- All time, place and manner restrictions, including time limits for comments, should be enforced in a uniform manner so persons with unpopular viewpoints cannot claim that they are being limited based on their viewpoint.
Governing bodies are far from helpless when faced with disruptive attendees at public meetings. The OPMA provides for three separate options governing bodies can take to re-assert control over their meetings. But they must be careful to follow all procedural requirements in the OPMA and take care NOT to prejudice any attendee based on the attendee's viewpoint, rather than any actually disruptive conduct.
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