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Judge backs right to critical speech

ALBUQUERQUE — A federal judge came down hard on a New Mexico village after officials tried to ban residents from saying anything negative at council meetings.

US District Judge James O. Browning issued an injunction on Monday finding that the village of Ruidoso’s rule or policy barring speakers from being critical is ‘‘an unconstitutional burden on free speech,’’ the Albuquerque Journal reported.

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Under the village rules, a speaker could praise personnel, staff, or the village council, or could make a neutral comment, but could not voice criticism.

In an 89-page opinion, Browning granted summary judgment to lawyer William Griffin, who sued after the council refused his request to speak at a meeting.

Browning said limits can be placed on time and topic, but not on the speaker’s opinion.

Greg Williams, president-elect of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the public has an interest in having meetings run in an orderly fashion but said Browning’s opinion shows that ‘‘a policy that says you can’t be critical is improper.’’

‘‘You can block topics, but not viewpoints, and negative is a viewpoint,’’ Williams said.

Nothing in New Mexico law requires a body to allow the public to speak, although the law requires that meetings be open, the opinion notes.

The ruling is the second federal opinion in New Mexico this year regarding limiting speech at public meetings.

In late March, Chief US District Judge M. Christina Armijo ruled against a decision by the Albuquerque Public Schools board to expel Charles ‘‘Ched’’ MacQuigg.

Board members said they took the action because MacQuigg would shout out during board meetings, hover over administrators, and once donned an elephant mask that made employees feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

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