In the case of Lowery v. Jefferson County Bd. of Educ., a high school football coach from Jefferson County High School in Tennessee dismissed three students from the football team for challenging his leadership. After the students parents were unsuccessful with their complaints to school officials, they addressed their concerns to the Jefferson County Board of Education.

The Jefferson County Board of Education had a policy in place that allowed an individual to apply to speak for five minutes at a board meeting, so long as the individuals appearance was not frivolous, repetitive, nor harassing. The board granted the parents initial application to speak. The parents then requested another speaking spot at the next scheduled board meeting. This time, the board denied the request pursuant to their policy, finding the parents request to be both repetitive and harassing. The parents sued, claiming that the board deprived them of their First Amendment rights by refusing to allow them to speak at the second board meeting.

Both the District Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found for the board, ruling that the board meeting was a limited public forum and that the boards denial of the parents opportunity to speak was a time, place, and manner restriction that was content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. The Court held that the boards ban on repetitive presentations was content-neutral because it had nothing to do with the subject of an individuals proposed speech and everything to do with conducting orderly, productive meetings. The Court also felt that the policy left open ample alternative channels for the communication of the information.

It should be noted that the facts of this case initiated in Tennessee, so the application of its ruling may be limited in Ohio courts. With that said, Lowery seems to suggest that school boards may establish content-neutral rules that restrict public participation in order to better facilitate efficient and orderly board meetings. We encourage boards to review their policies to ensure they have given themselves the latitude to prevent unnecessary disruptions to the productivity of board business. We also encourage boards to take care to implement these policies in a content-neutral fashion.

Posted by OSBA Legal Ledger on 2/17/2010