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January 12, 2021

The Revised Public Comment Rules settle a 2019 Lawsuit

SANTA ANA — Today the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to key changes in its public comment rules that a lawsuit charged had stifled dissent at Board meetings. 

The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP,  was on behalf of the People's Homeless Task Force OC, a community advocacy organization.

The lawsuit charged that the Board’s rules for public comment — including that comments could not be directed to individual supervisors — violated California's landmark Brown Act, as well as the U.S. Constitution and California Constitution.

“Orange County’s supervisors were treating their meetings like something out of a monarchy,” said Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU SoCal. “It was a kind of royal court where criticism directed at individual supervisors could not be heard. This was clearly unlawful.” 

As stated in the settlement agreement, the Board has revised its Rules of Proceedure to permit “members of the public to comment on, question, or criticize policies, procedures, programs, or services of the county, acts or omissions of the Board, or the positions, statements, votes, actions, or omission of individual members of the Board.”

The agreement also expressly allows people to make public comments without giving their names. “Requiring speakers to provide their personal information,” the lawsuit charged, “can have a chilling effect on political speech.”

The People's Homeless Task Force OC is an organization of concerned community members in Orange County who advocate for people experiencing homelessness. The group strives to find and promote real-world solutions to homelessness that has become epidemic in the county. But at Board meetings, the public comment rules made it difficult for their voices to be heard.

“In a continuous struggle, we fight for the right to make our voices heard,” said Michael Robbins, president of the organization. “The Orange County Board of Supervisors has a history of suppressing public comment, which continues to this day. With the settlement of this lawsuit, our organization expects that, to some extent, future public comments are permitted and respected.”

The rule changes have been reflected in public handouts and instructions. The “Speaker Request Form,” to be filled out by those wishing to make comments, now state that instead of a name, an “Alias/Pseudonym May Be Used.” The instructions displayed at Board meetings and on the county’s website will be similarly revised. 

Also, the form will now state, “Please address your comments to the Board. However, you may comment on, question, or criticize the actions of the Board as a whole, as well as those of individual members of that Board.”

“I am proud of the work done by the ACLU and Kirkland & Ellis team to protect individuals’ First Amendment rights at public meetings,” said Zac Byer, Partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP.       

Read the settlement document here:
The 2019 lawsuit is at: