Todd Paris, Staff Writer and Salisbury Attorney
♦ Salisbury, N.C. City Council was well attended on Tuesday night March 7th. My own particular interest was to battle any attempt to hamper citizen’s rights to free speech at statutorily mandated public comment periods. Changes were floated by Mayor Alexander’s edicts that public commenters “speak only to the body” and “not call out individual council members by name.” Other ungrounded ideas floated were to force speakers to sign up at 5:00 p.m. and to hold public comment till the end of the meeting so as to subject potential commenters to a virtual “death march” of “make happy” useless reports and discussions in order to spur them to leave early. Also floated, was an idea to strictly limit public comment to 30 minutes. The entire scheme was clearly a plan to snuff citizen’s rights and desire to exercise their first amendment rights at council meetings.
At last council Mayor Alexander unilaterally used the “no calling out and speak only to the body rules” to violate frequent commentor Carolyn Logan’s 1st Amendment rights. You may watch that video here on RFP.
An interesting discussion was had on an update of Salisbury’s sign ordinance by Preston Mitchell discussing how a US Supreme Court case, Reed vs. Town of Gilbert required changes in Salisbury’s sign ordinance to become content neutral. Upon my questioning, Preston said that now political signs can not be regulated any differently than the same signs that stay on the side of the road or in yards. Think realtors “for sale” signs. (You can see examples all over Salisbury) It passed. It appears that anyone running for public office, after complying with the Board of Elections laws, can put up campaign signs virtually any time they wish! I will check into this when I get a copy.
I spoke first at public comment, read passages from Fleming Bell’s article in “Coates Cannons” and explained that neither Mayor Alexander nor the rest of council can impose restrictions on the content of commenters speech and specifically mentioned how Ms. Logan was muzzled at last council.
Having to return home right after I spoke to prepare for trial tomorrow, I managed to hear Ms. Logan speaking unmolested behind me. She was flat-out awesome. This was all the reward I needed. As professor Bell said, “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.” Freedom of speech, baby!
In the end, the entire proposal failed and the rules will remain the same for now. I note that Council Member and BB&T Banker Brian Miller stumped for the more restrictive rules and only abandoned them when he failed to rally any support. I don’t wish Mr. Miller any ill will; however, I sometimes wish BB&T would give him a big promotion, huge salary increase, and a transfer to some nice place like California or China, where his talents would spark profits and lift the reputation of that fine banking institution. I’m sure he is a competent and highly skilled banker.