Law department advises Columbia City Council to allow candidates to speak at public meetings

Sunday, October 21, 2007 | 4:23 p.m. CDT; updated 8:59 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — Candidates for Columbia City Council should be allowed to use council meetings as a platform to discuss campaign issues, the city’s law department says.

In a report received by the council last week, City Counselor Fred Boeckmann recommended that candidates shouldn’t be prevented from using the public comment period at the beginning of meetings to address their stances on issues.

The matter came up after a March 19 council meeting at which then-Fourth Ward candidate Mike Holden was scheduled time to “give a brief five-minute summary of (his) campaign talking points.” Holden later decided not to speak, but council members at the end of that meeting requested a report on the possibility of prohibiting candidates from using public comment for “espousing candidacy issues.”

Holden said last week that such a policy would be wrong.

“I don’t believe that City Council should be able to limit public speech and public comment at meetings,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to the public.”

In his report, Boeckmann advised that limiting public comment at the start of government meetings could violate citizens’ right of free speech. Government regulation of speech in a public forum, such as City Council meetings, is subject to strict scrutiny, which requires a compelling governmental interest and narrowly drawn regulation. The law department determined that no such compelling interest exists in this case.

Holden agrees: “You can’t say just because someone is running for City Council that they can’t speak. It just doesn’t make any sense to limit it.”

Laura Nauser, fifth ward councilwoman, also sides with Boeckmann.

“It’s a hard thing when you’re a council member because you’re still a citizen of the community, and obviously every citizen has a right to express themselves,” Nauser said. Still, she said she wouldn’t be inclined to use public comment time to promote her candidacy.

“I personally wouldn’t take that route, but it’s each individual’s decision,” she said.

The public is allowed to schedule time to address council members near the beginning of each regular meeting on any topic that’s not on the council agenda for the night. A written request that includes the speaker’s name, phone number and topic must be submitted to the city manager’s office by noon on the Thursday before the meeting in order for time to be scheduled. Speakers are limited to five minutes and are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Council agendas also include time for public comment near the end of the meetings, but no pre-scheduled time is required.

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