Mass. high court affirms right to be ‘rude’ in public meetings

The Southborough Select Board may have found Louise Barron uncouth when she spoke during a 2018 meeting. But its effort to silence her was unconstitutional, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

During that session, Barron had accused board members of violating the state's open meeting laws, and spending town funds "like drunken sailors." Selectman Daniel J. Kolenda described the resident's comments as "slander" before moving the meeting into recess.

Barron had run afoul of Southborough's meeting policy, which said"All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language and/or shouting will not be allowed.”

On Tuesday, the justices in the state's highest court unanimously ruled that "such civility restraints on the content of speech at a public comment session in a public meeting are forbidden."

"Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting," the ruling said.

Southborough's Select Board did not return WBUR's email request for email for comment.

Ruth Bourquin, senior attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, called the decision a win for free speech.

She said the core issue in the case of Barron v. Kolenda is government officials "setting rules that allow them to silence speech that makes them uncomfortable or that they disagree with because it's critical of them."

A number of cities and towns in Massachusetts have similar rules in effect, Bourquin said. And the ACLU plans to monitor whether or not other municipalities change their policies and practices to comply.

The ruling did defend a government body's right to set rules around when public comments happen during a meeting, how much time each person gets to speak and what happens in cases of speakers disrupting other speakers.

What is left open, Bourquin said, is the possibility of whether governments can restrict certain periods of public comment to a specific topic — and if officials can cut speakers off if comments veer off.

The ruling does not answer that question head-on. In Barron's case, she spoke during the open comment period at the start of the meeting, which as the board's policy states is "a time when town residents can bring matters before the board of selectmen that are not on the official agenda."

With reporting from WBUR's Dave Fanuef.

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