Federal Court Denies Plaintiff’s Motion to Enjoin Enforcement of a School Committee’s Policy on Public Participation at School Committee Meetings

On January 20, 2023,  a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts noted that the rights of free speech and assembly, while fundamental in our democratic society, do not mean that everyone is entitled to address a group at any public place and at any time.

The judge denied the plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief in Sousa v. Seekonk School Committee et. al, No. 22-40120 (2023). The plaintiff’s motion sought to enjoin enforcement of two portions of the Seekonk School Committee’s policy on public participation on the basis that they violated the First Amendment.

Sousa is a member of the public who repeatedly disrupted School Committee meetings. On January 5, 2022, Sousa stood outside the window of a closed executive session and banged on the window and yelled at School Committee members while recording the session. A committee member notified police and a temporary No Trespass Order was issued to Sousa. Despite the order, on January 24, 2022, Sousa attended a School Committee meeting and played the recording of the January 5th incident during Public Speak. Sousa continued to speak after his time ended and he was asked to leave the meeting. Sousa was removed from another School Committee meeting on September 26, 2022, when he yelled at the committee for limiting his and his wife’s speech to the allotted time pursuant to the School Committee’s policy. Following this disruption, the School Committee issued a permanent No Trespass Order against Sousa. Sousa sued the School Committee, arguing that the Committee’s policy of encouraging respectful speech and of limiting debate in Public Speak violates the First Amendment and that the No Trespass Order unlawfully restricted his free speech. Sousa sought preliminary injunctions to enjoin enforcement of the order and policy.

In assessing Sousa’s motion for preliminary injunction, the court applied a standard which requires Sousa to show that he is likely to succeed on the merits of his claim. The court concluded that Sousa is unlikely to successfully show that the School Committee policy violated the First Amendment, whether he challenges the policy on its face or as applied to him. School Committee meetings are limited public forums, meaning that the Committee may impose limits on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. This includes time, place and manner restrictions, such as limiting speakers to an allotted time. The court found that the portions of the policy Sousa challenged are not restrictions on free speech because they merely encourage speakers to be respectful and disclaim that Public Speak is not a time for debate or response. The court further concluded that the restrictions placed on Sousa when he was not a recognized speaker, including the requirement that he not interrupt the meeting, were constitutional.

The Sousa decision is an excellent reminder that restrictions on speech which are reasonable and viewpoint neutral are unlikely to run afoul of the First Amendment.

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This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.