Pro/Con: Limited Public Comment


Since 1953, the Ralph M. Brown Act has protected Californians’ ability to participate in meetings of their local legislative groups. A core tenet of this ability to participate is the right to comment during meetings — the right to speak or write into record one’s opinion.

While, ideally, the local body should value this, over the past few years, public meetings have seen a rise in polarizing, often off-topic comments that take away from the meeting’s purpose.

Recently, the SDUHSD board altered their public comment procedures in part to make meetings run more smoothly. They limited total public comments on agenda items to 20 minutes and moved non-agenda comments to the end of meetings.

This is a step in the right direction. Implementing reasonable restrictions on both the duration and subject of public comments is essential in order to foster informed, organized meetings and encourage public participation and engagement.

To begin, unrestricted public comment sessions can be counterproductive in many cases, like descents into monologues, repetitive statements and simply inaccurate rambles, to name a few. Attendees often show up to board meetings only to bombard the board about the same topic, monopolizing the floor and detracting from the opportunity for other voices to be heard. This is wasteful because it takes away from the board’s time and can prevent the board from covering important, time-specific topics. Allowing the general public complete, unrestricted time to speak is impractical. By imposing time limits on public comment, boards can kill two birds with one stone: they both maximize the efficiency of meetings and ensure each speaker has a fair opportunity to express their ideas.

Additionally, unrestricted public comment has the potential to be divisive and can plant unnecessary controversy in the community. Controversial topics, personal attacks or lengthy tangents may undermine the collaborative spirit innately necessary for these community discussions, and they may harm innocent individuals with no rhyme or reason. By establishing clear guidelines — including limitations to solely subject-related and timely discussions — for organized, respectful dialogue and avoiding room for crossfire, public meetings can foster a more constructive and engaging atmosphere for consensus-building.

While SDUHSD made a step in the right direction, changing its policies and restructuring its meetings, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted against a similar change this month. While some may argue that these restrictive measures on public expression limit democratic participation, in truth, reasonable restrictions enhance the democratic process by providing a platform for all voices to speak in a structured and efficient way. In reality, without policies such as SDUHSD’s, board meetings are likely to be chaotic and unproductive. Such measures are critical for making the democratic process possible, upholding the value of free speech while making sure that public participation will lead to community consensus.


In most community meetings, the public has the opportunity to comment on issues presented by policymakers. The practice of public comment is essential to productive community meetings, as it allows the public to engage with other community members on matters that affect all of them, and it indicates to policymakers where the public stands on particular issues.

In November 2023, the SDUHSD board altered their public commenting procedures, allotting just 20 minutes in total for the public to share its perspectives on agenda items after they are presented by the district. Additionally, the new procedures moved all non-agenda public comments — those addressing topics not discussed by the board — to the end of the meeting. This new system, which faced backlash from community members, has made it more difficult for the public to comment on particular issues, as many do not have the time to wait until the end of the meeting to raise their concerns to the board. Through limiting the public’s ability to comment with time restrictions and strict sections to ask questions, the school board is losing valuable community input on certain issues.

Though such non-agendized comments may seem off-topic to some, they are, in reality, important insight for a board into the community climate; when constrained, the community’s voice dwindles.

During the pandemic, local government agencies — especially school boards — nationwide saw a rise in often polarizing public feedback, with videos of disruptive crowds and angry comments going viral. At the education level, public comment sections across the nation became a hotspot of topics ranging from mask policies to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion curriculum to book bannings. As local agencies now look to cool their meeting climates, it is not surprising they are turning to time and subject restrictions, seeking to keep their meetings productive and their discussions succinct. However, such comment crackdowns — even those that merely switch the location of comment periods — are too restrictive, as they indicate to the public that their local government does not truly want to hear or value their voices. Not only does this leave the public disinclined to engage, but it also strips the public entity of a valuable tool in their decision-making: their stakeholders’ voices.

While SDUHSD took a step in the wrong direction, another San Diego board — the San Diego County Board of Supervisors — rejected a similar change in their public comment procedures, thus upholding the public’s right to provide input.

Public comment must be prioritized at community meetings, as it benefits both the public and the policymakers. The policymakers will gain insight into the public opinion of their proposed agenda items, allowing them to interpret their proposed plans through a different lens, and the public will be allowed the chance to participate in discussions that actively impact them and their communities.

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