Recently community members and activists in Texas and in other states such as California have questioned whether the three-minute rule at public hearings is a violation of their First Amendment right. Currently residents are allowed to voice their concerns and comments for three minutes at the beginning of each meeting. Residents and those in attendance are not allowed to speak on individual agenda items.
What is reasonable?
What is reasonable may be subjective; one person’s idea of reasonable may not align with another’s idea. Looking at the issue through the lens of the court, reasonable means finding a balance between the people’s right to address their elected officials, and the agency’s right (as represented by the officials) and ability to manage public meetings. Speech, says the court in Ribakoff v. City of Long Beach, is a protected right, but unlimited speech is not. Board members, the court in this case held, have the discretion to allow a speaker to speak for longer than three minutes or more than once, but this is not a guarantee.
What power does a municipality have?
Charter cities have complete power over their municipal affairs, as the recent appellate court determination in California confirms (Ribikoff v. City of Long Beach). This is expressly true when the city is enforcing reasonable time limitations on public testimony. Restricting the amount of testimony a meeting attendee proffers is not a violation of that person’s First Amendment rights because it is a content-neutral restriction, the constructed paradigm being only time. Staff members and invited speakers need not adhere to the three minute rule, as the boards at these meetings have reasonable justification for allowing longer time to people in either of these capacities.
Members of the public, per the Texas open meeting law, are guaranteed the right to attend and participate in these meetings, but the amount of time they are allowed to have the floor can be held to three minutes.