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How does the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and Michigan Open Meetings Act (OMA) apply to the public during the public comment period of a township board meeting?

Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment of the US Constitution does not give township residents the right to make remarks during a meeting’s public comment period. The United States Supreme Court stated in Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges that “[t]he Constitution does not grant to members of the public generally a right to be heard by public bodies making decisions of policy.” Minnesota State Bd for Cmty Colleges v Knight, United States Supreme Court (1984). This same principle is why there is no “public comment” during sessions of Congress.

It is actually the Michigan Open Meetings Act—not the First Amendment—that gives township residents the right to a public comment period. See MCL 15.261. The OMA authorizes the public to “address a meeting of a public body.” MCL 15.263(5). The right to a public comment period under the OMA is not absolute. The OMA enables townships to set reasonable limitations on public comment periods to provide for orderly meetings. MCL 15.263(1).

Townships frequently limit the length of their public comment periods to ensure they have productive meetings. Although it is impermissible for townships to limit the entire public comment period to a set time, the OMA generally allows townships to place limits on how long individual members of the public can speak. Michigan Attorney General Opinion, No 5332 (1978). Townships can also prohibit public comments on topics other than public business such as personal attacks. Id. It is generally up to the township supervisor, as moderator of the township board, to intervene and enforce these rules. MCL 41.72(a)(3).

The Michigan Open Meetings Act attempts to keep township meetings open and available to the public, while also allowing township officials to conduct orderly meetings.

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