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

The First Amendmentfor Local Governments

Mark Flynn

General Counsel

Virginia Municipal League



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



Traditional public forum
Traditional public forum?

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



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


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 ordinance Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart



    Up in smoke
    Up in smoke?

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




    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.’


    Mark Flynn

    General Counsel

    Virginia Municipal League

    [email protected]


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