What justifies calling a Point of Order?
Guest post by Nicole Schenk
The motion Point of Order is a request to the chair to enforce a parliamentary rule, which a member is claiming has just been broken, or is in the process of being broken.
Calling a Point of Order is a basic right of every member. It is one way to help keep meetings civil, and the chair and the members more aware of the rules.
One basic idea
In a nutshell, the rules of decorum boil down to one basic idea: discussion, remarks, and commentary should be kept strictly germane, meaning limited to what is relevant in regard to the item of business currently being discussed. Robert’s Rules of Order defines it formally as: Confining remarks to the merits of the pending question.
If we keep this one rule without exception, it automatically excludes personal remarks, insults, inflammatory language, and irrelevant information. It says what is allowed, which keeps the parameters for discussion very specific and restricted. This usually works to the benefit of discussion, decision making, and efficient handling of business. (Read more about this basic idea in Inappropriate Remarks on Nonprofit Boards and Inappropriate Remarks on Local Government Councils.)
This means that Point of Order should not be used frivolously or excessively. It should be used for significant and disruptive violations of the rules of decorum, the rules of debate, and to minimize hindrances to the handling of business. All members should be aware of their rights, and how to process a Point of Order (and Appeal).
Sometimes it might feel as if calling a Point of Order is complaining or “telling” on someone—a person who might be a neighbor, or who you consider a friend, or at least a professional acquaintance. It can be difficult to speak up if personal feelings are involved, because people might think they will be seen as too sensitive, or will feel guilty about calling out bad behavior by someone they might not otherwise ever have conflict or friction with.
In fact, this is not actual conflict or friction. It is a request for people to follow the group’s adopted rules, and a request to the person who enforces the rules to do their job. Point of Order is the way that the entire group helps the rules be effective.
Police the chair
Some might find this surprising, but it is the obligation of the members to police the chair. Police the chair? What does this mean?
In most situations, the group elects a chair. If the chair is not performing their duties as defined by Robert’s Rules (or the group’s internal parliamentary rules), the group must bring this to their attention. And if no change is made, the group should consider replacing the chair (if feasible). Not everyone has the right temperament to be a chair, and that is perfectly OK!
It is not an insult to the chair to ask them to enforce a rule. Even if a board votes to have them step down and be replaced, it is part of how the rules keep being functional and stay intact. If discussion cannot happen fairly, or with civility, it has a negative effect on the group as a whole, on individuals, and on how business is handled. Of course, human nature being what it is, a chair is not going to be happy at being replaced, so tact is necessary.
Does the chair raise a Point of Order?
The question has been asked: Does the chair raise a Point of Order?
No, not the way a member does. The chair simply interrupts the speaker directly, and reminds them (and everyone else present) of the rules.
Let’s say a member uses insulting language towards another member. The chair should interrupt, and might say something like this:
Members will kindly refrain from personal remarks.
Insults are not allowed under our rules of decorum. Members will kindly refrain from making such remarks.
Please keep all remarks relevant to the topic being discussed.
It’s best for the chair to speak in general terms, and in the third person, and not to single anyone out. If a pattern of bad behavior emerges there are other steps that can be taken, but a general stating of the rules to all members is the best place to start.
This goes for members as well. In order to de-personalize the situation, instead of indicating the person who actually broke the rules, a member might say:
Member: Point of Order!
Chair: State your point.
Member: The last speaker said something I consider an insult. Insulting and personal remarks are not allowed.
Chair: The point is well taken. Members will kindly restrict their remarks to the topic at hand.
What if the member has trouble expressing their Point of Order?
Sometimes a member knows that something is wrong, but finds it hard to explain their point. The chair can ask, “What rule has been broken?”
What if people use Point of Order incorrectly?
Sometimes people use Point of Order because they disagree with what someone said. The chair should explain that this is not the right use of the motion. For example:
Member: Point of Order!
Chair: State your point.
Member: What my colleague just said is not true.
Chair: As a reminder, the purpose of this motion is to bring a breach of the rules of procedure to the chair’s attention. Members who disagree with facts stated may bring that up during debate.
What if the chair isn’t sure?
The chair has the duty of issuing a ruling on a Point of Order. However, it is also their option to turn to the group and ask them to decide, like this:
- Member A: That statement is just a bunch of baloney!
- Member B: Point of Order!
- Chair: State your point.
- Member B: The word “baloney” is insulting!
- Chair: The chair is in doubt and will ask the group to decide.
- Chair: All those who believe that the word “baloney” is insulting, say “aye.”
- Members in favor: Aye!
- Chair: All those who believe it is not insulting, say “no!”
- Members opposed: No!
- Chair: The ayes have it, the word baloney is insulting and may not be used, OR The noes have it, the word baloney is not insulting and may be used.
If anyone disagrees with the chair’s ruling, any two members can appeal it. Then the group as a whole decides. Read Keep the chair in line using Appeal for more on how to appeal.
How to do this?
If a group is unsure how to make Point of Order a natural part of what they do, one approach is to hold an “education minute” at the beginning of meetings, covering the various points of procedure. In this way, violations are less likely to happen.
For some more detail on the rules of decorum and debate, please see Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition, Section 43:19 – 43:40. Other entries concerning decorum and debate can be found using the index.
A useful exercise
In order for members to feel comfortable calling a Point of Order (or an Appeal), it is advisable for them to practice, perhaps in a few special “training” meetings that could take place 20 minutes before or after another scheduled meeting, or conducted on days when people can attend in person or through videoconference. In the process of setting the stage to practice Point of Order, a group would also be in a great position to thoroughly practice motions.
Mock motions can be made and perhaps the members can make a game out of it, by choosing and swapping different ways to violate the rules, and can go about interrupting each other, going over speaking times, cross-talking, using (playful and mild) insults or not-germane comments. Points of Order can be called at various times, and processed through the Chair. Perhaps the chair will ask the group to decide if the point is well taken or not.
The role of the chair for this kind of training can be taken by each member round-robin style, so that everyone gets a chance to process a Point of Order, and if the group is feeling bold, a few Appeals!
Nicole Schenk is a Southern California native and a student of parliamentary procedure. She served on a board for five years, encountering many parliamentary questions and challenges. Her search for answers and solutions led her to Jurassic Parliament, where she now serves on the team, helping to empower people to have better, more efficient and more productive meetings.
© Nicole Schenk 2023. All rights reserved.