Federal judge: ‘Right to criticize public officials clearly established’

A recent decision from a federal court in Illinois reaffirms that the essence of First Amendment freedom is the ability to criticize government officials.

Komaa Mnyofu spoke at the public comment portion of a meeting held by the Board of Education of Rich Township High in Matteson, Illinois. After several minutes, Mnyofu criticized some school officials by name. At that point, the president of the board of education ordered that Mnyofu’s microphone be silenced and that a security guard stop Mnyofu from speaking.

Mnyofu sued the board of education and its president in federal court, alleging they violated his First Amendment free-speech rights by prohibiting him from criticizing school officials. He contended that the board unconstitutionally restricted speech based on content.

The board filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that they could channel complaints of school officials to a uniform grievance procedure. The defendants also argued that the board president was entitled to qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects government officials from liability unless they violated clearly established law.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas M. Durkin of the Northern District said that more information was needed to determine Mnyofu’s factual allegations, but also noted that there was a “reasonable likelihood” that the school board meetings are designated public forums and the restriction on Mnyofus’ speech was content discrimination.

On the question of qualified immunity, the judge also ruled solidly in Mnyofu’s favor. “The right to criticize public officials is clearly established,” he wrote in Mnyofu v. Board of Education of Rich Township High School District 227. “Additionally, the right to speak at public forums or designated public forums free of content-based restrictions is also clearly established.”

The First Amendment protects the right to criticize public officials. In 1931, Justice Hugo Black expressed it eloquently in Bridges v. California, when he wrote, “It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, though not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute. He teaches First Amendment and Professional Responsibility classes at Vanderbilt University School of Law and various classes at the Nashville School of Law.

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