A federal district court in Chicago has issued a “preliminary injunction” temporarily prohibiting a school board from enforcing a board policy that bars public commenters at school board meetings from mentioning students and employees by name because it was likely to constitute an impermissible, content-based restriction of First Amendment free speech rights.

In Mnyofu v. Board of Education of Rich Township High School District 227 et al. (Case No. 2015-c-8884, 2016, N.D. Ill. 2016), the plaintiff sued the Board of Education and the Board President, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was prevented from criticizing school officials during the public comment portion of a Board meeting.  The plaintiff alleged that when he began to criticize employees by name, the Board President asked for the microphone to be turned off, for a security guard to stop Mnyofu from speaking, and for the police to be called.

The school district defendants filed a motion to dismiss alleging that they did not violate the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights because they were unsuccessful at curbing his speech.  The court rejected this argument because the defendants did, in fact, order the microphone to be turned off and for a security guard to step in.  The defendants also argued that the Board meeting was a “limited public forum” so they could restrict comments about employees and instead channel complaints “regarding individual personnel” into a “uniform grievance procedure.”  The court declined to resolve this argument on the merits because it would involve the determination of facts.

In addition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff filed a motion for preliminary injunction, asking the court to order the Board not to enforce its policy barring public commenters from mentioning the name of students and employees.  The court granted the preliminary injunction because it found that the plaintiff had a reasonable likelihood of success.  The court based its decision on the fact that the policy was likely to be an impermissible content-based restriction on free speech.  Moreover, the court reasoned that the plaintiff’s “loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury”; whereas the Board would not suffer an irreparable harm if it was not able to enforce a likely-impermissible policy “because it is always in the public interest to protect First Amendment liberties.”

Public comment portions of school board meetings give rise to multiple, complex legal issues. Contact Bob Kohn or Jeff Goelitz with your meeting management inquiries.