Salisbury: Is Mayor Alexander Planning on Arresting Citizens for Speaking Out at Public Commentary If She does Not Like What They Say?

Posted on October 1, 2017

Todd Paris, Salisbury Attorney and Candidate for Salisbury City Council

♦ During the Rowan Concerned Citizens City Council Candiates Forum this week at Mission House, we were asked how city council might “be more hospitable and responsive” to citizen comment. I explained 1st Amendment constitutional law again. The city council and commission meetings themselves and just the council doing its business in public and are not “free speech” venues.  You can’t just stand up in a meeting and begin arguing or protesting.  You would be out of order.

The NC Legislature passed law years ago requiring these public bodies to have citizen comments at least once a month for 30 minutes. During that small legally mandated period council session becomes a “traditional free speech venue” and speakers may not be censored by the mayor or council absent of profanity, obscenity, or threats of personal harm.

Mayor Alexander would later that night once again apologize for not being more restrictive on public comment. She would also play her challenge card and ask me if I was aware of a law making it a Class 2 misdemeanor to disrupt city council meetings. I should have just said, “Shush, shush, shush” to her in response. While there are a variety of statutes she might have misconstrued and she did not state a statute number or title of the law, I told her I was not aware of such and asked her to forward it to me. I turned to David Post, who is an Attorney and CPA, and he looked surprised. It has not arrived and so we will have to do some guessing.

Mayor Karen Alexander Looking Overwhelmed at the Candidates Forum:

§ 143-318.17. Disruptions of official meetings.
A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. (1979, c. 655, s. 1; 1993, c. 539, s. 1028; 1994, Ex. Sess., c. 24, s. 14(c).)

A finer focus is needed. “Speakers have a right to speak free of any government-imposed restrictions on their speech unless the restrictions are reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; are content-neutral; and are “narrowly tailored” to serve a significant governmental interest.  In the traditional public forum, which includes the streets, sidewalks, parks, and general meeting halls, speakers’ rights are at their apex.” STEINBURG v. CHESTERFIELD COUNTY PLANNING COMMISSION, (4th 1978)

“The State may be justified ‘in reserving [its forum] for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics.” Thus, “[w]hen the State establishes a limited public forum; the State is not required to and does not allow persons to engage in every type of speech.  Distinct from the traditional public forum is the “limited public forum,” which governmental entities may create in a specified location for a limited use, so long as they do not impose those limits in a manner that discriminates based on the speaker’s viewpoint.” Id.

What that means in a public hearing on zoning for a new fire station location, (a limited public forum) speakers can be held to just discuss the fire station. Then again, in a “traditional public forum” like our statutorily mandated public comment period absent obscenity or threats, are in my humble opinion, hands off. Even though the court ruled against the citizen, Steinburg, explains the law.

Conclusion? If “our dear mayor” decides to use this statute in a traditional or unlimited public forum like public comment to arrest people for speech that she does not like it is going to cost this city’s League of Municipality Insurers dearly. While the court in Steinburg did not have to decide whether the “no personal attacks” policy there was unconstitutional because the speech occurred in a limited public forum public (zoning hearing) criticism of an individual council members votes, speech and actions as it relates to the city may not be banned in public comment. This is not “content neutral” and thus not allowed.

There is a larger issue. When called down, Carolyn Logan was commenting on the fact that the Fibrant Building, which was built by Karen Alexander, before she was appointed to city council came in way over budget. Mayor Alexander added new rules to that voted on by council to the effect that things that happened years ago are not appropriate. She appears to make rules up as she goes along. This “Fibrant building issue” seems to be a sore topic with both her and Brian Miller, who called Carolyn out or order even though he was not chair and Maggie Blackwell who called for the police to come. Why is restricting free speech on this issue so important to them? Perhaps this needs further investigation.

Mayor Karen Alexander Hiding Behind a Fan from the RFP’s All Seeing Eye:

I note this week that City Manager Lane Bailey has announced that a new “in house” attorney is about to be hired. This would entail that Attorney Rivers Lawther is retiring. I have a great deal of respect for Rivers and much sympathy that he has to work for this council majority and manager. I would not want to take a job as a city attorney in October, where my council is facing a highly contested November race. The new council may reserve its right to pick its own lawyer and for that matter, city manager.

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