Don’t misuse Point of Personal Privilege


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A reader writes to say that in his city council, the members frequently say, “Point of Personal Privilege,” and then go on to give their opinion about something. This is wrong. Robert’s Rules of Order explains that in a meeting, members may raise a Point of General Privilege, or a Point of Personal Privilege. Neither of these motions provides the opportunity to ramble on about a topic that isn’t related to the ongoing debate.

Point of Privilege must be urgent

The first thing to note is that points of privilege refer to something that is timely and urgent. They interrupt the proceedings, so they should be appropriate to the circumstance. My favorite example comes from the delicious little book, “All Those in Favor Say Something!” At a meeting of the Kansas City Garden Club, this exchange occurred:

Member A: Madam Chairman, I rise to a Point of General Privilege.

Chair: State your point.

Member A: The furnace is about to explode!

(Note that the term “Madam Chairman” is contemporary from 1936.)

Point of General Privilege refers to everybody

We see from this example that a Point of General Privilege refers to a condition that affects everyone. Perhaps the servers are taking away the used dishes during a speech, so no one can hear under the clatter. Perhaps the temperature is too hot, or perhaps the furnace is about to explode. In these cases, a member rises, addresses the chair, and the chair takes appropriate action—in the latter instance, evacuating the hall.

Another common use of Point of General Privilege is when a body is discussing something confidential, which a member believes should be discussed in executive (closed) session. A member moves that the body go into executive session, which takes a majority vote. If this motion passes, all non-members leave the room, with the possible exception of select staff members or other individuals present for consideration of the delicate topic. (Public bodies of course must follow their state law as it applies to closed or executive session.)

Point of Personal Privilege refers to one person

A Point of Personal Privilege, on the other hand, refers to a single person—the speaker. Perhaps the speaker finds it difficult to stand, and so makes this request:

Member B: Chair, I rise to a Point of Personal Privilege.

Chair: State your point.

Member B: Some of us, myself included, find it difficult to stand up to vote. I would appreciate it if the chair would take votes by a show of hands, or allow individuals to raise their hand rather than standing.

Chair: That is an excellent point. We will take votes by show of hands. Thank you for bringing this up.

Or perhaps the member can’t hear others clearly, and so would say:

Member B: Chair, I rise to a Point of Personal Privilege.

Chair: State your point.

Member B: I’m finding it difficult to hear the speakers clearly. Would everyone be good enough to lean into their microphone/speak up/enunciate, so that I will know what is being said?

Chair: Thank you for bringing this up. Members are requested to speak up loudly and clearly during discussion.

Another example of Point of Personal Privilege would be a person who comes in late, reads the minutes that were approved earlier in the meeting, and wishes to correct the minutes, which state that the person voted in favor of a motion that, in actual fact, the person opposed. In a case like this, the chair must rule on whether the point is admissible at the time it is raised, or whether it should be taken up at a different time.

Chair has duty of responding to Points of Privilege

As readers know, the chair controls the process of the meeting. When a Point of Privilege is raised, the chair has the duty of responding. The chair may find that the point is admissible, or the chair may say, “It is an improper use of Point of Personal Privilege to give one’s opinion about a colleague or a situation. Members will kindly refrain from doing this.”

If you are the chair and council or board members do this often, you may want to schedule an educational minute to explain the purpose of this motion, so people aren’t taken by surprise at the change in custom. If you are a member, you may want to have a quiet discussion with the chair to point this out, and to advise that you plan to make a Point of Order when it happens. The chair should be prepared to rule on your Point. Read our article Point of Order and Appeal are the heart of democracy to learn how to do this.

The chair’s ruling can be appealed, as long as the ruling is not a matter of fact on which there cannot be two opinions. Read our article Keep the chair in line using Appeal for more.

Don’t misuse Point of Personal Privilege

The bottom line is that Point of Personal Privilege does not allow for bloviating (going on and on, usually in a pompous manner), or indeed for any expression of opinion. If your agenda includes the item “Announcements and remarks for the good of the order,” you can thank people then. (Note however that you can’t criticize past actions of the group during this agenda item. See our articles on inappropriate remarks on local government councils and inappropriate remarks on nonprofit boards.) Don’t misuse Point of Personal Privilege to take up your colleagues’ time when it is not appropriate.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.