Todd Paris, Staff Writer and Salisbury Attorney
♦ “Coate’s Cannons” disseminates information about a broad range of legal issues affecting local governments and other public agencies in North Carolina. They are authored by staff at the UNC School of Government at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In the tradition of Institute of Government founder Albert Coates, their hope is that the blog will also will serve as a forum for discussion, and provide a lasting resource for those in government, as well as community groups and citizens across the State. The blog is highly respected among city and county managers, staff and city and county attorneys across the state. It is universally respected.
The City of Salisbury, North Carolina, at the urging of its Mayor Karen Alexander, will meet at 5:00 p.m. on March 7, 2017 to modify the rules for city council public comment to move the time to the end of the meeting, restrict commenter’s to “the Body” and would prevent anyone from mentioning the names of individual council members, and impose strict time limits on individual and total comments. Mayor Alexander has already specifically targeted Carolyn Logan and has claimed rules to exist that are merely pending, and has shut her down.
Fleming Bell wrote the seminal blog on public comments in Coate’s Cannons on May 20, 2010, (updated August 2013). I will share excerpts here and they are freely copied from this work.
“Participants in statutorily required public comment periods, on the other hand, are generally free to comment on any subject that is within the jurisdiction of the local government that is holding the comment period. The public comment period is a “limited public forum” for purposes of the First Amendment’s rules on freedom of speech, and the broad language of the statutory directive to hold “public comment periods” likely means that the board must allow general comments about any topic related to the city, county, or school district. The board also must be careful not to restrict comments about such topics based on the viewpoint stated by the speaker, or by the forcefulness of the speaker’s arguments.” Carolyn Logan comes to mind regarding the “forcefulness of the speaker’s arguments.
Furthermore, Fleming Bell writes, “Protection from public criticism is clearly not available for the elected board members themselves. As a practical matter, if someone wishes to complain to the board about its actions or those of one of its members, the only place where the concern may be raised publicly in front of the entire body is generally during the public comment period or at a public hearing.”
Fleming Bell continues, “Such comments are at the heart of the political speech that is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. In fact, criticism of public officials has a long and respected history in the United States, going back to colonial times when it was generally not protected speech. Consider, for example, the Edenton and Boston Tea Parties and the hanging of King George III of England in effigy. I often tell local elected officials, only half jokingly, that a thick skin and a polite willingness to endure criticism are essential job requirements for their positions.”
He further states, “In 2005, the General Assembly enacted S.L. 2005-170 (H 635), which mandates that city councils, boards of county commissioners and local boards of education provide at least one period of public comment each month at a regular meeting of the board.” Mayor Alexander’s desire to quash or restrict public comments at Salisbury City Council Meetings “flies in the face” of both N.C. General Statutes and both the U.S. and N.C. Constitutional grants of freedom of speech and is patently illegal.
She should resign.
I note for the record that the Rowan County Democratic Party stood fast against this brutal prior restraint of free speech last week and we as a people, as free citizens, both Republicans and Democrats, should not let this stand. Karen Alexander and any council that vote for these “prior restraints” to freedom of speech should resign, so as to cease making a mockery of the foundations of republican democracy.