Local governments face a tough climate these days. Customs of courtesy have faded and people are often both passionate and rude about their issues. If you are a mayor or presiding officer of a public body, it is critical that you control disorder in your chambers.
Council meetings are meetings of the council
The basic principle to start with is that when a city council or other elected body holds a meeting, it is a meeting of the council. It is not a meeting of the public. By law and custom, councils have the right to set up rules for the orderly conduct of their business.
Purpose of public comment
When councils include a time to hear from the public, the purpose of that agenda item is for community members to inform the council of their views. We strongly recommend that elected officials should NOT enter into dialogue with the public. We also recommend establishing other channels for dialogue and discussion outside council meetings. Read more about this in our article Don’t get into back-and-forth exchanges during public comment.
Public may not disrupt the meeting
The public does not have the right to disrupt the meeting. Sometimes passion spills over into obstruction, and that is not allowed. A prudent leader will confer with the attorney ahead of time, and have a plan to deal with disruption. Be sure to review state law about what is and is not permissible.
Mere words do not constitute disruption
The courts have found, in general, that mere words do not constitute disruption. Under the First Amendment, community members can say pretty much whatever they like. Any permissible restrictions on public comment, such as time, place and manner, must be viewpoint-neutral. They can’t favor one point of view over another. Read Brett Vinson’s excellent article Danger Will Robinson! for more on this.
Chair must be firm about disorder
If your public becomes rowdy or engages in clapping, hissing, booing or interrupting, you as presiding officer must be authoritarian and stern. Remind the public firmly that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. It impedes the council from doing its work. Even worse, it inhibits free speech—both on the part of the council members and the public. It’s important to speak with confidence, to convey strength of mind, and to use the gavel if necessary.
Don’t try to gavel someone down
We recommend against “gaveling someone down.” Banging the gavel over and over gives an impression of weakness and often is ineffective. When you use the gavel, strike it lightly but firmly. Once, or at most twice, should be sufficient. Rely on your own moral authority and strength to convey the message.
Control disorder in order to serve democracy
As Lillian Helman said, “It is best to act with confidence, no matter how little right you have to it.” Consult your attorney, make sure your colleagues are in support of your approach, and know that in controlling disorder in your chambers, you are serving democracy and promoting fairness for all.