Benjamin Wish of Todd & Weld LLP and the ACLU of Massachusetts persuaded a Massachusetts Superior Court judge to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the Natick School Committee to discontinue policies that violate the free speech rights of individuals during the "Public Speak" portion of school committee meetings.
The injunction follows the filing of a lawsuit against the school committee after it shut down attempts by Corey Spaulding and Karin Sutter, two mothers of former Natick public school students, to raise their concerns at the Public Speak portion of recent school committee meetings. The lawsuit seeks to protect the free speech rights of the mothers and others.
The school committee interrupted the mothers and suspended the meetings, invoking an unconstitutional policy that allows it to regulate speech on the basis of the content of that speech, and for practically any reason at all. The committee claimed it can silence speech, for example, because it finds the speech “improper,” not “appropriate,” or “sensitive.”
Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Billings ordered the Natick School Committee to immediately stop applying policies that prevent speech based on the content of the speakers’ messages, including speech that is critical of the school system. Under the judge's order, the school committee also may not silence speech the school committee deems “improper,” “defamatory or abusive,” or “personal complaints.”
"Public speak, by its own definition, is an open forum, outside of the meeting's agenda, to allow members of the public to 'voice an opinion or concern on any school-related issue,'" wrote Judge Billings. "The restrictions in the policy and revised policy both on their face and as applied are aimed to prohibit certain speech that is critical of the Natick Public Schools – they are quintessentially viewpoint based. Where language of conduct is deemed improper, disruptive, or vulgar is not subject to objective criteria or analysis – but rather, as in [a federal court decision], is at the discretion of the [school committee] chair, who, as is apparent from the videos the court has observed, freely exercises her authority on an ad hoc basis, as she sees fit.
The judge rejected the School Committee’s argument that the Open Meeting Law applies to or justifies its conduct during the Public Speak portion of a meeting. According to the order, “to the extent that [the Open Meeting Law] is in conflict with First Amendment or Article 16 principles, those would take priority and the statute would have to be read in a way that is compatible with the rights they provide.”
Mr. Wish, lead counsel on the case, said, “The Court’s decision is a vindication of the free speech rights of Ms. Spaulding, Ms. Sutter, and every member of the public, which is as important in these times as ever before. Our elected leaders must be able to listen to speech that is critical of their behavior if they hope to represent those they are elected to serve.”
Mr. Wish concentrates his practice on complex commercial litigation, shareholder and real estate disputes, and white collar criminal defense. He represents clients pro bono in defending their free speech rights.