The Bedford Select Board on Monday modified its public comment policy to align with a recent ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The principal change is relaxation of the requirement to maintain “civil discourse,” which now becomes a guideline.
Also, the board will permit comments regardless of whether they relate to items on the agenda.
In a decision connected to action by the Southborough Select Board, the court said that “civility restraints on the content of speech at a public comment session in a public meeting are forbidden.”
“Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting without violating both provisions of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which provide for a robust protection of public criticism of governmental action and officials.”
The ruling added, “What can be required is that the public comment session be conducted in an ‘orderly and peaceable’ manner, including designating when public comment shall be allowed in the governmental meeting, the time limits for each person speaking, and rules preventing speakers from disrupting others, and removing those speakers if they do.”
Town Manager Sarah Stanton said the change was advised by town counsel following the court ruling. She stressed that the civil discourse rule remains for formal public hearings and town meeting.
The Select Board added a formal public comment period at the beginning of each meeting in 2020, at the suggestion of former member Ed Pierce, who cited the practice on the School Committee. Before that, the timing and content of public comment were up to the discretion of the chair.
Stanton explained that requiring comments to relate to agenda items was an attempt to comply with the state open-meeting law, which limits board discussion to the agenda.
“I do like the idea of allowing comments on any topic,” said member Shawn Hanegan. But he expressed concern about personal attacks. Stanton said the court decision outlaws “implied threats or suggestions of violence, but “allows rudeness – which means you can say almost anything.”
The town manager added that town counsel advises that boards not respond to any comments.
In answer to a question from board member Margot Fleischman, Stanton said she will notify the chairs of town boards and committees of the change. She pointed out that the public comment agenda item is not a requirement; “it is encouraged, but is at the discretion of every board.”
Two residents who have frequently expressed disagreement with the Select Board were the first to participate in the revised public comment framework Monday. “Thank you for making this adjustment,” said Patty Carluccio. Added Robin Steele, “I hope people continue to act nicely.”
One other resident, Molly Haskell, then spoke to urge the Select Board to oppose a planned hangar construction project at Hanscom Field – which was not on the agenda.