Senate approves measure guaranteeing right to speak at public meetings

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In a state known for its “government in the sunshine,” it may come as a surprise to many to learn that in Florida, the right to attend a public meeting does not always include the right to speak at that meeting. The Florida Senate today unanimously passed Senate Bill 206 by Senator Joe Negron, R-Stuart, helping to give Floridians a voice during public decision-making meetings.

“A city resident may be allowed to attend a local meeting relating to public oversight by a government body, but he or she does not have a legally protected right to speak up,” said Negron. “As recently as 2010, a Florida district court of appeal ruled that the open-meetings statute does not encompass the right to speak.  Most bodies do give the public an opportunity to be heard on important issues, but for those instances where the opportunity to speak is not afforded, there is no statutory right upon which we can rely.”

SB 206 provides that individuals must be given an opportunity to be heard before boards and commissions subject to the state’s open-meetings statute, known as the Sunshine Law. It creates a new section in Florida Statutes to allow the public a reasonable opportunity to speak at public meetings and creates a new Section with title to provide that boards and commissions subject to the law must give the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before the body.

Among its provisions, the bill stipulates that the opportunity to speak does not have to be provided if it is an emergency situation involving public safety and providing public comment would cause unreasonable delay. Further, the board or commission can adopt rules to ensure orderly meetings, including establishing time limits, requiring a representative of a group or faction to address the body when a large number of individuals wish to speak and prescribing forms to inform the board or commission of one’s desire to be heard.

“For most government bodies, this law will not change current practices,” added Negron. “It was in the Legislature’s purview to help provide a logical remedy to current public meeting policies, and that’s just what we’ve done. This bill is the product of extensive collaboration with local governments as well as the First Amendment Foundation, and I am pleased to see it pass with full support today in the Senate.”

A similar bill, HB 355, is sponsored by Representative Martin Kiar, D-Davie, in the House.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.