The term “open forum” can refer to several things, depending on who is speaking and what the context is. All of these meanings, however, imply the open exchange of ideas and information, usually to better the common good. The word “forum” comes directly from the Latin. In Roman times, the forum was an open marketplace where people could make purchases, have discussions with other citizens, and try to reach agreement on matters of public interest. Some of these meanings have carried through to the modern day.
In a loose sense, this term can be used to describe any space in which people may exchange information and ideas. In the United States, for example, most government owned public property is an open forum. In that forum, citizens can protest, hold meetings, and exercise other first amendment rights. Some typical examples include sidewalks, parks, streets, publicly held buildings, and spaces set aside specifically for the purpose.
The term is also used to refer to a specific meeting or event. In this instance, an open forum is intended to be a venue in which people can gather to find out about a specific issue, reach a resolution on a controversial subject, or interact with members of their communities. Often, officials and representatives are present to answer questions from the public, facilitate the discussion, and provide information which people may find valuable or useful.
The idea of the open forum is very important to many democratic nations, since it allows citizens an opportunity to speak out about things which concern them. It also allows residents to have influence in their communities, by giving them a vote in major community decisions. Depending on the nation, a forum may offer citizens an opportunity to vote on proposed development, allocate community funds, or participate in their communities in other ways.
Although this type of forum is intended to be a space in which free speech is exercised, there are restraints. People are expected to behave politely, although they are welcome to disagree with each other. Violent words or actions are not condoned, and a forum must also be held at a reasonable hour. If citizens intend to exercise their public rights by marching or holding a demonstration, they must apply for permits, just as a group of individuals holding a forum in a municipal building must do. As a general rule, the open forum must be open to everyone, regardless as to race, gender, creed, or economic status.