Freedom of Speech starts at home

It’s not just DeKalb’s mayor who’s having trouble with the Open Meetings Act lately. The Edgar County Watchdogs report that the president of the Village of Wheeling recently used police officers to stop a citizen who wanted to address public comments to one particular public official instead of the whole board.

The focus of this Watchdogs’ report was the advice that the law firm Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins* have given Wheeling — and other public bodies in Illinois — when it comes to local government making rules about public comments at public meetings.

The Open Meetings Act says this about the public’s right to speak:

Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.

It’s a newer amendment to the Open Meetings Act, and yeah, it’s kind of vague. But that’s okay. The granting of a right to speak by any level of government automatically puts us under First Amendment coverage since nobody’s allowed to supersede the Constitution.

There are two types of public forums: traditional and dedicated.

Traditional public forums are public places where speech is traditionally allowed without regulation from the government, such as parks, sidewalks, and streets.

Dedicated public forums are places where speech has not been previously allowed but then proactively opened up by a government entity. While a government entity may not be required to allow the public to speak in such a location, once the government entity opens up the forum for speech, a limited or dedicated public forum has been created and the speaker enjoys the full protection of the First Amendment. [Emphasis in original.]

DeKalb officials have often shown hostility toward First Amendment rights. I recall that a former DeKalb mayor once told a citizen that he should not continue to participate in public comments because he did not reside in the city.

Another time (and another mayor ago) an agenda item attracted a crowd of NIU students. Other members of the public were individually allowed their allotted three minutes to speak during a public comment period, but when three NIU students rose to speak, they had to share three minutes between them.

And now our current mayor has recently threatened us with infringement of speech following public comments that called out the poor job performance of a city staff member.

As the Watchdogs remind us, legitimate limitations to public speech as provided by OMA are not content-based.

Yes, the statute says a person can speak “under the rules” established and recorded by the public body. What that means, is “time, place, and manner” rules, ie: a public body may develop rules that enhance the public’s ability to speak without further restricting the right of the public to speak and address their public officials during the meeting. What this generally means is that a public body may make rules stating the time limit per speaker, overall time limit for public comment, or the portion(s) of the meeting where comment is placed.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor has weighed in on this several times, and has always been consistent – enhance, not further restrict.

But the real key is how you, me, and our neighbors respond to attacks on our rights.

Related:

DeKalb’s current public comment rules

Here’s the video of the recent ejection of a citizen from a Village of Wheeling meeting. Scroll to the bottom of the post.

*If Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because I’ve written about this law firm several times. Though off-topic, it’s timely heads up. A few years ago, the city tried an end run around its own Housing Task Force by secretly contracting with KTJ to force the outcomes they wanted. The new North Annie Glidden Task Force will start work soon, and due to the “hard sell” we’ve seen for this project from city staff already, I wouldn’t expect this administration to behave any better.