Public forum law deals with people’s rights to find out what citizens need to know to be truly self-governing, and to share what they know and believe without fear or loss.
These rights are complementary. Open meetings and public records laws keep information about civic issues freely available. Protections for journalists, activists, whistleblowers and others striving to keep the community armed with the facts and their implications complete the circle of law that it takes to keep Californians aware.
After all, ready access to government meetings and files means little if no one dares report or comment on what they learn. And people willing to take a stand and speak out are easily disabled and discredited if the facts and discussions that advance government and other powerful institutions are sealed away from their discovery.
Why the phrase “public forum?” A public forum is a commons for communication—a space where speech on matters of importance to the community is expected and protected. Many public forums are in the public space literally: streets, parks and plazas where citizens interact, informing and persuading one another. Many others are provided by government: official meetings of local and state bodies where citizens address their elected or appointed public servants, on the record.
Still others are privately owned sectors opened by tradition or law to some civic discourse: newspaper editorial pages, radio talk shows and certain large shopping malls where patrons are encouraged to congregate without having to buy. The most dynamic public forum is the newest — in some spaces private but in many others welcoming news, views and discussion — the Internet.
What trends threaten public forums?
• Excessive official secrecy: A public starved of the facts that are staples of speech.
• Intimidation or retaliation: Too high a price placed on inquiry, reporting or comment.
• Eroding opportunity: Dwindling space or time for expected and protected speech.