Speaking at public meetings
In First Amendment jurisprudence, government property that has by tradition or by government operation served as a place for public expression is called a traditional public forum or a limited public forum. In a traditional public forum, such as a public street, speech receives the most protection and the government generally must allow nearly all types of speech. Restrictions on speech based on content (called content-based restrictions) are presumptively unconstitutional in a traditional public forum. This means that the government can justify them only by showing that it has a compelling state interest in imposing them, and that it has done so in a very narrowly tailored way.
Courts have also been wary of laws, rules or regulations that prohibit criticism or personal attacks against government officials. 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.”
When a government decides to offer a “public comment” period at an open meeting, it provides that citizens may exercise their First Amendment rights. Government officials can limit comments to the relevant subject matter, control disruptive or overly repetitive speakers and impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech. However, when government officials create a public-comment forum, they have created a limited public forum in which greater free-speech protections apply. The government may not silence speakers on the basis of their viewpoint or the content of their speech. The government must treat similarly situated speakers similarly. In essence, the government must live up to the values embodied in the First Amendment.