The first amendment for local governments
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The First Amendment for Local Governments. Mark Flynn General Counsel Virginia Municipal League. L.A. City Council discusses medical marijuana. Anaheim City Council Council meeting closed by fire marshal. Protest of shooting of citizen. Back to 1791. 1 st Amendment:

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The First Amendment for Local Governments

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The first amendment for local governments

The First Amendmentfor Local Governments

Mark Flynn

General Counsel

Virginia Municipal League


The first amendment for local governments

  • L.A. City Council discusses medical marijuana


Anaheim city council council meeting closed by fire marshal protest of shooting of citizen

Anaheim City CouncilCouncil meeting closed by fire marshal. Protest of shooting of citizen


Back to 1791

Back to 1791

1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no lawrespecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


The areas that apply to local governments

The areas that apply to local governments

  • Public forum doctrine

    • Traditional public forum

    • Limited / designated public forum

    • Non public forum

  • Regulation of speech generally

    • Sign ordinances

    • Employees

    • Rules for governing body members

    • Prayer at public meetings


The first amendment for local governments

  • Traditional public forum – speech on any topic

    • Town square

    • Sidewalks – may not impede pedestrian use

    • Reasonable time, manner & place restrictions – not on content of the speech


Traditional public forum

Traditional public forum?

  • Protest on Capitol grounds – 2012 session of General Assembly (Capitol steps not a public forum)


The first amendment for local governments

  • Or are they?


Designated or limited public forum

Designated or Limited public forum

  • Portion of council meeting where public comment accepted.

    • Public hearing

    • Public comment period

      Speech limited to topic under consideration

      During limited public forum portion of meeting


The first amendment for local governments

1st Amendment right does not extend to:

  • Disruptive speech – Steinburg case

  • Personal attacks

    HAMPTON — Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward on Thursday defended kicking former state lawmaker Tom Gear out of a City Council meeting on Wednesday, saying she had no choice but to enforce the council's rules.

    Gear was forced to leave the meeting and charged with trespassing when he refused to stop demanding an answer to his question: When did Ward first learn about the Hampton Police Division's undercover cigarette operation?

    "I believe it's my job as chair of the body to make sure that rules of protocol and decorum are followed," Ward said, saying Gear was out of order at the meeting. "I did my best to make sure that the rules of the body were followed.“ Daily Press, 10/11/12

  • Council or other public body may/should set rules – time limits, non-repetitive.


  • Non public forum

    Non-public forum

    • Most of council meeting not a public forum

      • Public has right to attend and right to be quiet

    • Public buildings

      • generally a non-public forum


    Other free speech issue at meetings

    Other free speech issue at meetings

    • Prayer at public meeting?

      • Government speech

      • 4th Circuit has repeatedly made rule clear – no religious-specific prayers

      • Attorneys fees a practical risk

      • What about a Wiccan? Nope

      • But wait! US Supreme Court to hear Greece, NY v. Galloway. Could overturn 4th Circuit.


    Why can t we be friends

    Why can’t we be friends?

    • Disruptive council members

      • Council may not restrict a councilor’s speech based on the position he or she takes

      • May discipline a member for disruptive speech, personal attacks (time, manner & place restrictions – content neutral)

        § 15.2-1400.D. A governing body may punish or fine a member of the governing body for disorderly behavior.


    Other free speech issues

    Other free speech issues

    • Arlington sign ordinanceWag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart


    Bye bye pooches

    Bye-bye pooches


    Up in smoke

    Up in smoke?

    • Arlington head shop after Wag More. Blunt repainted to whale “We don’t sell whales”


    The first amendment for local governments

    • Town of Cary, NC sign ordinance – town ordinance upheld by 4th Circuit.


    The first amendment for local governments

    • Lexington, VA street banners

      City passed rule to make street a non-public forum. Upheld by 4th Circuit.


    Public employees right to speech

    Public employees’ right to speech

    • May not discipline for speech on matters of public concern – Pickering v. Board of Ed., 391 U.S. 563, 88 S. Ct. 1731 (1968).

    • must be on a matter of public concern, and the employee’s interest in expressing herself on this matter must not be outweighed by any injury the speech could cause to the ‘interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.’


    The first amendment for local governments

    Mark Flynn

    General Counsel

    Virginia Municipal League

    [email protected]


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