Across a polarized nation, governing bodies are restricting — and sometimes even halting — public comment to counter what elected officials describe as an unprecedented level of invective, misinformation and disorder from citizens when they step to the microphone. As contentious social issues roil once-sleepy town council and school board gatherings, some officials say allowing people to have their say is poisoning meetings and thwarting the ability to get business done.
The efforts to moderate public comment — and audience outbursts that can accompany it — are taking place in both red and blue regions as elected officials cope with what the American Association of School Administrators, the School Superintendents Association and the National School Boards Association have referred to as rising threats of violence and aggression at community meetings.
But some legal experts and lawmakers worry some restrictions are overreactions by thin-skinned officials that skirt unconstitutional limitations on free speech. Even if legal, they argue, reining in comment runs contrary to the American ideal of letting the public express views to representatives chosen and funded by taxpayers — even if those views include threats, bigotry and falsehoods.