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AG nixes speaker restrictions at public meetings

The Virginia attorney general has some advice for local governments trying to keep a lid on critical public comments: Don’t overreach. The AG says rules that limit criticism of individuals go too far.

Across Virginia, tempers often flare at meetings of city councils, county supervisors and school boards. Speakers voice gripes about government employees. Feelings get hurt; emotions run high. To keep the pot from boiling over, some local governments ban citizen comments that refer to individual government employees or school students.

The Franklin City School Board took that route. It offers time for citizens to comment, but it bars speakers from either praising or criticizing any individual. “Personal attacks” are forbidden, according to an opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring.

Those restrictions are unconstitutional limits on First Amendment freedoms, Herring said in the April 15 opinion requested by Del. Richard L. Morris.

“Freedom of speech is essential to the maintenance of a free society,” Herring wrote.

He concluded the school board “may not constitutionally bar speakers from discussing personnel issues or identifying individual school employees or officials during public session.”

Herring also concluded that barring “personal attacks” was not permissible.

Herring said interpretation of a ban on mention of individual students would depend on the circumstances of the case.

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