AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week in Central Texas, at least two school board meetings dissolved into chaos as districts work to navigate COVID-19 safety protocols, specifically whether they will enforce mask mandates, regardless of Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order.
On Monday night, several people were escorted out of a Leander ISD board meeting, according to people at the meeting and videos obtained by KXAN, despite a warning from leaders in their previously posted agenda, which announced people who were disruptive would be removed.
That’s exactly what ended up happening.
“I don’t think a general reminder at this point is going to help us altogether, I don’t think a plea for respectful interactions is really helping before I end up giving a warning and asking for removal if you are disrupting the meeting,” one of the members of the board said as crowd members continued to yell.
The agenda shows that action items included accepting a board member’s resignation and options for filling that vacancy.
A day later, the Round Rock Independent School District had to cut a meeting short after it was disrupted several times by angry community members. A number of people were upset at not being allowed in the main chamber for the meeting, which was at one point blocked off by police.
A spokesperson for Round Rock ISD says they let the room fill up as much as possible while abiding by social distancing guidelines. Once the room was full, people were put in an overflow room, where they could watch the meeting on television and come into the main room to talk — if they signed up to speak.
That spokesperson said current capacity is limited, and seats are spaced six feet apart, because both Williamson and Travis counties are in the highest COVID-19 risk phases.
Community members were unhappy with that, citing the Open Meetings Act. RRISD says they abided by the Open Meetings Act and did not violate the law “in any way.”
Politics and opinion aside, there appears to be some confusion on what can and can’t be done by a school board, and by police, under the Open Meetings Act and within the bounds of freedom of speech. We took community members’ concerns to University of Texas law professor Steven Collis to break down what the Open Meetings Act means for you.
Can I legally be escorted out of a public meeting?
Collis: “Generally speaking, people can’t disrupt the meeting. There are reasonable times allotted for when people can make comments, and if they’re preventing the operation of a meeting by say, screaming or yelling or violence or anything like that, then at that point they can be escorted out.”
Can school districts set up overflow rooms and require some people to watch from there?
Collis: “I don’t know the exact specifics of how the overflow room was set up (at Round Rock ISD), but certainly sometimes government officials have to set up overflow rooms. It’s the only way possible, not just in the COVID era, but even other times if there’s a really hot button issue, and there’s just way too many people that can’t fit in the main chamber.”
“Generally the goal is to, and I think this is consistent with the Open Meetings Act requirements, is to ensure that those in the other rooms can see what’s happening and can listen in, and then still have the opportunity to come in and present their public comments. As long as they’re given that opportunity, then certainly you can do it in a compliant way.”
Is talking over board members, other speakers during a school board meeting covered by free speech?
Collis: “Government can place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech. And in particular for the functioning of government, you do have to be able to limit comment time and when people can make comments and try to keep them on topic.”
“Usually, in these types of meetings, two or three minutes has been considered to be a reasonable time, place or manner restriction. I certainly could see a scenario where government limits time so much that it becomes unreasonable, and a judge would rule against them. They also can’t allow every person to go for 15 minutes or some of these meetings would go for 24-48 hours.”
How do I find resources to know whether my rights are being violated or not?
“This is not going to sound incredibly profound, but a simple Google search takes you to some really good resources,” Collis said.
One of those resources is the Office of the Attorney General’s handbook on the Open Meetings Act from 2020. You can find that handbook here to read more about the Open Meetings Act.