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School board meetings often incorporate a public comment period which provides the community with an opportunity to ask questions about the agenda, voice opinions on school operations, and call issues to the attention of the board. In many cases, this is a positive opportunity for the board to engage the community. But at any given board meeting, comments by members of the public can morph into personal attacks on school board members, administrators or staff, and parents may make statements or ask questions that violate the privacy of students.

When this occurs, it places the chair of the meeting – usually the school board president – in the difficult position of trying to maintain decorum and confine discussions to appropriate topics while respecting the First Amendment rights of members of the public. While no board policy can fully relieve this tension, your school board can articulate its expectations and give the board president clear guidelines to follow.

Limits on free speech
While an individual’s right to freedom of speech is derived from the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution, not all types of speech are protected. A public entity such as a school district lawfully may curtail certain types of speech, such as that which provokes“imminent lawless action,” “fighting words” (which the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as “those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”), true threats, obscenities, child pornography, false statements of fact, libel and/or slander, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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