Can South Florida School Board Ban ‘Personal Attacks' Over Mask Debate?

The proposal marks a significant shift, made in reaction to an onslaught of verbal attacks this year from parents upset over mask mandates

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If Palm Beach County School Board members get their way, people who address them at their meetings soon will have to refrain from saying their names or personally criticizing them.

A proposed change in the rules for public comment at board meetings says “speakers may not address Board members by name and personal attacks against individual Board members, the Superintendent, or District staff are prohibited.”

The proposal marks a significant shift, made in reaction to an onslaught of verbal attacks this year from parents upset over mask mandates.

The school board is just the latest in Florida considering new restrictions on public speakers in an effort to calm raucous displays in their meetings. At least three others have moved in recent months to make similar changes to what speakers can say or how long they can speak.

Palm Beach County’s proposed changes were endorsed last week by a majority of board members but have not yet been voted on. Votes to adopt the new rules could come early next year.

If the restrictions take effect, they could raise constitutional concerns if they are not enforced in a “content-neutral” way, an open-government expert said.

Courts are not of one mind on these changes to public comments

Courts have ruled in different ways regarding restrictions on public comment during government meetings, sometimes upholding the ability to restrict what residents say, and sometimes striking down the rules as going too far.

This year, for example, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled that an Ohio school district violated the public’s free-speech rights by enforcing a prohibition on “abusive” and “personally directed statements” at its school board meetings.

That policy was unconstitutional, the court ruled, because the rules “prohibit speech purely because it disparages or offends.”

But similar rules have been upheld in other cases. Last month, a federal judge rejected an argument that Marco Island’s city council violated free speech rights by barring a resident from “personally attacking” a council member during public comment.

Is the rule applied equally to everyone and to both praise or criticism?

Often, whether a speech restriction passes legal muster comes down to whether the rule is applied equally to all speakers, said Virginia Hamrick, staff attorney for the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

“It’s not per se a violation to say ‘Don’t use a person’s name,’” she said. But “if they let the public say names only to praise but they’re cutting down discussion when it’s critical of the school board, then it can get into viewpoint discrimination.”

Members of the public, including civic leaders and other government officials, frequently praise or thank individual members at board meetings.

If that is allowed to continue but the school board prohibits critics from using their names, that would open up the school district to legal challenges, Hamrick said.

“These policies can’t be used to silence critics, so how are they being applied and how are they being used at meetings?” Hamrick said.

It’s not yet clear how broadly board members would define “personal attacks.” School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, who runs board meetings and enforces public-comment rules, did not respond to a request for comment.

Palm Beach County is not the first school district this year to weigh changes to its public-comment policies. In the past two months, Brevard, Volusia and Indian River counties have all moved forward with similar changes.

The idea of altering the rules came out of a meeting this year of the Florida School Board Association, an Indian River County School Board member told

Hamrick said such changes are already facing legal challenges, raising the possibility of more shifts in what people can say in school board meetings if a court decides the rules go too far.

“There are lawsuits challenging them so I wonder if we’ll see a decision coming out of the (federal appeals court),” she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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