CCTV Human Service News and Information TV/Blog Alert/Update: “I Felt Like it was Wrong to be Silenced, Freedom of Speech Rights In Dispute!'

CCTV Human Service News and Information TV/Blog Alert/Update: “I Felt Like it was Wrong to be Silenced, Freedom of Speech Rights In Dispute!'

Local Governments are Required to Hear Public Comments per State Statute!

  • Posted on: 9 June 2021

Peace Be Unto You,

Vocal critics of the homeless population in Waynesville have crossed swords with Waynesville’s town attorney twice in the past month after he attempted to silence speakers during the town board’s public comment period.

Members of the grassroots coalition dubbed Saving Haywood have religiously attended Waynesville town board meetings for over a year now, using their allotted three minutes of public comment to take town leaders to task for not doing more to protect the town from negative spillover of the homeless population.

Local governments are required to hear public comments per state statute — and almost anything goes with very narrow grounds for restricting speech.

However, Waynesville Attorney Bill Cannon twice claimed speakers treaded into forbidden territory when criticizing a local progressive group called Down Home and accusing the paid head of the town’s homeless task force of having ties to the group.

At a recent town board meeting, Cannon cut off a speaker during public comment and told her she couldn’t talk about Down Home. At the following meeting, a different speaker took up the same mantle with resolve — ignoring Cannon’s insistence she quit talking and instead plowing ahead with her comments.

“I’d never spoken out at the town board before in my life, but I was standing up for my freedom of speech,” Sherry Morgan said following the meeting. “I felt like it was wrong to be silenced, and I was determined to show we are allowed our three minutes.”

Morgan was only about 30 seconds into her comments when Cannon interrupted at the first mention of the Down Home.

“Ma’am...excuse me ma’am….ma’’am you’re out of order,” Cannon said as she kept talking.

Cannon then declared her time up, even though she was only a minute in to her allowed three minutes.

“Ma’am your time is up. Ma’am if you disrupt the meeting you will be ejected,” Cannon said.

As Morgan plowed ahead, Alderman Anthony Sutton tried gesturing at Mayor Gary Caldwell to gavel her down. Caldwell didn’t do so, however.

Eventually, Morgan’s comments transitioned away from Down Home and to homeless issues in general, and Cannon gave up edtrying to remove her from the podium.

Cannon was later criticized by members of Saving Haywood for overstepping his role.

“I think he has got his role completely confused,” said Joey Reece. “He does not run the meeting. He is there in an advisory capacity only. I don’t know why he thought it was his position to censor people.”

Randy Mathis, a regular at town board meetings who witnessed both incidents, said the town board should reprimand Cannon for overstepping.

“They need to put a leash on him,” Mathis said. “He’s there to advise the town on legal issues, not to violate people’s Constitutional rights on freedom of speech.”

What’s allowed?
What’s allowed during public comment periods is very broad, but there are a couple of exceptions. And the comments in question rose to that level, according to Cannon.

Legally, public comments that aren’t germane or relevant to the town board can be prohibited. If someone wanted to talk about their grandkid’s birthday party or their summer vacation, for example, that could be deemed irrelevant to the public body, Cannon said, citing legal precedent to that effect.

Cannon said comments about Down Home — a liberal activist coalition — weren’t relevant to the Waynesville town board.

Cannon admitted, however, that deeming a comment irrelevant is inherently subjective.

“Of course, where to draw the line on when a comment is no longer relevant will still require some interpretation,” Cannon wrote in a memo to the town board.

Reece countered there are very few topics that could be kicked out on the grounds of being irrelevant.

“It is a very high standard and it is rarely met,” Reece said.

In this case, the speakers criticizing Down Home believe it is a highly relevant subject. Down Home endorsed candidates in the last town board election, has hosted forums on town issues, and has publicly stated policy positions on the homeless issue confronting the town.

The public has a right to know that the paid facilitator for the town’s homeless task force is affiliated with such a group, according to Morgan.

“Why are they trying to keep that quiet?” Morgan asked.

However, the paid homeless task force facilitator Amy Murphy-Nugen told The Mountaineer this week that she is not actually a member of Down Home. She was hesitant to confirm or deny any personal affiliations, however.

“It gives me thoughtful pause to provide information about my personal relationships and affiliations, as I think it has the potential to set a chilling precedent,” she said, but since it’s become such an issue, she agreed to clarify it.

She has attended a few meetings hosted by Down Home, but she intersects with loads of organizations in her work as a consultant, and that doesn’t make her a member.

So where did the critics get that idea? From Down Home itself. Down Home refers to Murphy-Nugen as a member on its website, when quoting Murphy-Nugen in an article written by Down Home.

Attacks versus criticism
Another exception for disallowing public comments is when they cross into the territory of personal attacks.

While public comments attacking an individual serving in a public role can legally be censored, criticism is OK. And that begs the question: when does criticism rise to the level of an attack?

“It is tricky,” Cannon admitted.

The comments alleging the head of the homeless task force Amy Murphy-Nugen is a member of Down Home met that threshold in Cannon’s opinion.

“At our last board meeting, I was put in a difficult situation when one person used the public comment period to attack another individual and an organization that the individual allegedly belongs to,” Cannon wrote in a memo to the board. “I interrupted the speaker and instructed her to please focus her comments toward the board rather than engaging in personal attacks on individuals and other organizations.”

Cannon further elaborated on the difference between a criticism versus attack in his memo.

“However, I am of the opinion that when the criticism goes beyond the job performance...and focuses on that person’s religious beliefs, political party or other subjects...the line has been crossed,” Cannon wrote.

However, Cannon’s critics say that litmus test was not fairly applied. A speaker from the pro-homeless camp attacked members of Saving Haywood during a public comment period but wasn’t cut off. Why is it OK for Saving Haywood to be criticized, but not Down Home, Reece questioned.

“The most grievous act a local government can make is letting one side speak on an issue and prohibiting the other side, and that’s exactly what happened,” Reece said.

Cannon believes that public comment periods shouldn’t be open season to bash other groups, period.

“It’s pretty apparent that one group of people doesn’t like the other group of people,” Cannon said. “They were using the public comment period as a time to fight with each other. The town board doesn’t referee fights between other organizations.”

It can be hard to decide when a public comment crosses the threshold of a personal attack, according to Frieda Bluestein, a local government expert with the UNC School of Government.

“Does this mean that a board can’t enforce a policy barring personal attacks in public comment periods? No, as long as the mayor or chairman is careful to distinguish between criticism and attacks — admittedly a challenging distinction, but one that can be made,” Bluestein said. “Certainly, it’s a fine line.”

Should public comment be reined in?
For more than a year now, the town board has listened dutifully to a parade of public comments at nearly every meeting by members of Saving Haywood, even allowing the group’s ring leader Peggy Hannah to occasionally have more than the typical three minutes to make her case — on the grounds she was representing others in the audience who yielded their time to her.

However, after the back-to-back meetings where Cannon deemed comments out of order, Cannon is urging the town board to revise its public comment policies.

Cannon’s memo to the town board recommended several suggested changes to the town board’s public comment policies — including whether to allow public comment at every meeting or only once a month as is legally required. Those suggestions the town board will likely be weighing in coming weeks.

Another question is how to enforce rules when a speaker refuses to yield.

“I feel like if things keep going the way they are, you are going to need to have a police officer here every meeting,” Cannon told the board. “It’s a sad state of public discourse, but it’s the way it may have to be.”

SOURCE: Mountaineer Publishing Co, Inc., 220 N Main Street Waynesville, NC

Yours In Peace
Hasson Rashid
Human Service News and Information TV/ Blog CCTV