Are meeting rules of order related to speaking privileges the same as the Freedom of Speech guaranteed in the Bill of Rights?  Short answer is “no” but presenters Stefanie Lewis and Karen Clemmons-Lloyd at the most recent meeting of the Louise Saks Parliamentary Unit (LSPU) guided us through a historical view of the need for rules when everyone has something important to say.

An important principle of Robert’s Rules of Order (RONR) is the one item of business at a time and one person speaking at a time.  If you’ve been part of a lively conversation that isn’t a meeting, you know how challenging it can be to listen when more than one person is speaking or when there are side conversations that you want to hear.

In meetings, the one person speaking at a time is even more important; RONR offers rules that may seem overly formal, but if the meeting is contentious at all, following rules means it’s fair to everybody.  Let’s consider a few of the rules.

  • Before a member in a meeting can speak, she must claim the floor by rising and addressing the chair.  In small bodies, there’s less need to rise and the chair may simply nod to a person to “give her the floor.”  A chair must recognize any member who seeks the floor and is entitled to it.
  • What happens when two people ( or more!) want to speak at once?  Generally, the member who rose and addressed the chair first after the floor was yielded, is given the floor.  It does a member no good to stand up before the floor is yielded.  An exception to this practice is that in some organizations any member who wishes to speak has to go to a microphone and stand while waiting.  Still the member has to address the chair and receive permission to speak.
  • If a member has made a motion and then been seated before speaking further (following the rules exactly right) the chair calls on the person who made the motion to be the first speaker even if somebody else is eager to debate.
  • No member is entitled to speak a second time as long as any member who has not spoken yet claims the floor.  RONR allows a person to speak twice assuming everybody has spoken.  The length of time may surprise you.  RONR allows a person to speak ten minutes!  However, most organizations have special rules that limit the speaking time to under ten minutes.

Do members have freedom of speech in meetings?  Yes, every person who is a member can debate, but that speaking follows a prescribed rule of order either according to RONR or according to rules an organization adopts.