In a decision laden with references to the American Revolution, the state Supreme Judicial Court this week ruled that a town cannot control what people say during public comment periods, even if it is “discourteous, rude, disrespectful or personal.”

“What can be required is that the public comment session be conducted in an ‘orderly and peaceable’ manner, including designating when public comment shall be allowed in the governmental meeting, the time limits for each person speaking, and rules preventing speakers from disrupting others, and removing those speakers if they do,” wrote Justice Scott Kafker, in a unanimous decision of the court.

The 29-page ruling, released Wednesday, March 7, came in a case brought by three Southborough residents against the town’s select board and its chairman. The complaint followed a meeting in December 2018 at which one of the residents was threatened with physical removal from the meeting for violating the town’s civility policy.

The court found that policy, which mandated that remarks at public meetings be “respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks,” violated both articles 16 and 19 of the state’s Constitution, known as the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

The decision leaned heavily on article 19, which dates to 1780 and was drafted by John Adams with help from his cousin Samuel Adams, giving the people of Massachusetts the right to assemble and seek redress of wrongs and grievances done by the government.

“As written, this provision expressly envisions a politically active and engaged, even aggrieved and angry, populace,” Justice Kafker wrote, noting that it was inspired by the colonists’ experience under British rule and reflects the lessons and spirit of the American Revolution.

In its decision, the court cites letters written by Mr. Adams and subsequent case law to support the public’s right to a full and free discussion of public matters, “including the protection of fierce criticism of governmental action and actors, so long as the criticism is done in a peaceable and orderly manner is and consistent with time, place and manner restrictions.”

The decision found the town’s public comment policy to be unconstitutional.

The full text of the decision is attached.