The ACLU of Rhode Island has called on the Coventry School Committee to abandon its practice of barring community members from speaking about “personnel, litigation or negotiation” during the public comment portion of its meetings.  In a letter sent to the school committee and its solicitor, the ACLU argued that the policy was clearly unconstitutional.

Following an incident at a recent school committee meeting in which a parent was refused permission to speak about his daughter’s cross-country coach, the solicitor stated that such comments about personnel were restricted “not just by this committee’s rules, but by state law,” and specifically by a recent advisory opinion out of the Attorney General’s office. 

In refuting that assertion, the ACLU noted that the advisory opinion, issued in response to a query from another school committee, applies only to circumstances in which members of a public body actively engage in conversation with an audience member.  “Nothing in that opinion purports to claim that state law bars members of the public from speaking on any matter during a ‘public comment’ session,” the ACLU wrote.

The ACLU’s letter goes on to state that the school committee’s current policy represents a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of meeting attendees, and points to the Affiliate's successful challenge in recent years to similar school district policies that had been in place in Providence and Tiverton.  The letter concluded by urging the Coventry School Committee “to revise its current policy so that members of the public may, during the ‘public comment’ portion of a meeting, speak on any matter in the purview of the public body.”