Public comment at board meetings: What board members need to know
As made clear by California’s Brown Act, public agencies, including school districts and county offices of education, “exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business . . . The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” (Government Code section 54950.)
Board meetings must provide an opportunity for the public to address the board on items of public interest within the board’s jurisdiction. (Government Code section 54954.3.) For any item on the agenda, the public must have the opportunity to address the board prior to or during the board’s consideration of the item. At a regular meeting, the public is also permitted to comment on matters not on the agenda.

California law imposes important guidelines on how and when boards can regulate public comment. Boards are tasked with finding a balance between ensuring sufficient time for individual speakers and sufficient time for comment from the entire community present at the meeting, and to complete a meeting with a lengthy agenda within a reasonable period of time. Boards are also tasked with keeping order at the meetings, ensuring an orderly discussion and exchange of information, with the ability to remove speakers who disrupt a meeting, if necessary. These laws allow boards to create reasonable limitations on public comment, within the framework of protecting the public’s right to participate and allowing the flow of ideas and viewpoints for the board’s consideration.

Boards should set procedures for meeting conduct through their board policies, including the procedures for public comment. CSBA’s model Board Bylaw 9323 provides an important resource for boards in conducting meetings and regulating public comment.

Boards will often have the board president recognize the speaker and then proceed to comment, ideally as briefly as the subject permits. The board president may rule on the appropriateness of a topic raised by a speaker if the topic would be suitably addressed at a later time, but the board shall not prohibit public criticism of the district or its employees, no matter how harsh. As a California court wrote in finding a school board could not censor particular speech at its board meeting, the board’s policy could not impinge “upon the public’s First Amendment rights, which rights include the right to be passionate and even uninformed in the expression of one’s views.” (Baca v. Moreno Valley USD, 936 F.Supp.719 (1996).)

Government Code section 54954.3 authorizes boards to set reasonable limits on the total amount of time allocated for public comment on a particular issue and for each individual speaker, and many boards set specific time allowances in their policies. Often, individual speakers will be allowed three minutes to address the board on each agenda or non-agenda item, and the board will limit the total time for public input on each item to 20 minutes. However, in exceptional circumstances when necessary to ensure full opportunity for public input, the board president may, with board consent, adjust the amount of time allowed for public input and/or the time allotted for each speaker.

Board members should be clear that this ability to limit the time for individual speakers, and for public testimony on a particular topic, is meant to further the law’s goal of allowing the public an adequate opportunity to speak to the board. Any adjustments to speaking time must be done equitably so as to allow a diversity of viewpoints, but the board president may ask members of the public with the same viewpoint to select a few individuals to address the board on behalf of that viewpoint. Board members should note as well that under Government Code section 54954.3, in order to ensure that non-English speakers receive the same opportunity to directly address the board, any member of the public who uses a translator shall be provided at least twice the allotted time to address the board, unless simultaneous translation equipment is used to allow the board to hear the translated public testimony.

Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your legal counsel for questions related to this information.