March 11, 1993
Mr. John J. Sheehan
P.O. Box 604
Binghamton, N.Y. 13902
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
Dear Mr. Sheehan:
I have received your letter of March 6.
You referred to advice previously rendered in which I indicated, in your words, "that those conducting meetings have the right to control speakers." You wrote that when the president of City Council is sworn into office, he swears to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the State of New York. That being so, you asked how such a person can "turn around and deprive speakers of their first amendment rights."
In this regard, while individuals may have the right to express themselves and to speak, I do not believe that they necessarily have the right to do so at meetings of public bodies. It is noted that there is no constitutional right to attend meetings of public bodies. Those rights are conferred by statute, i.e., by legislative action, in laws enacted in each of the fifty states. In the absence of a statutory grant of authority to attend such meetings, I do not believe that the public would have the right to attend.
In the case of the New York Open Meetings Law, in a statement of general principle and intent, that statute confers upon the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, to listen to their deliberations and observe the performance of public officials. However, as you are aware, that right is limited, for public bodies in appropriate circumstances may enter into closed or executive sessions. As such, it is reiterated that, in my opinion, there is no constitutional right to attend meetings.
Within the language of the Open Meetings Law, there is nothing that pertains to the right of those in attendance to speak or otherwise participate. Certainly a member of the public may speak or express opinions about meetings or about the conduct of public business before or after meetings to other persons. However, since neither the Open Meetings Law nor any other provision of which I am aware provides the public with the right to speak during meetings, I do not believe that a public body is required to permit the public to do so during meetings. As suggested in earlier correspondence, a public body may in my view permit the public to speak, and if it does so, it has been suggested that rules and procedures be developed that regarding the privilege to speak that are reasonable and that treat members of the public equally.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman