Citizens say new public speaking rules put in place by the mayor during last week’s city council violate their constitutional right to free speech.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan put in place new public speaking rules during the Oct. 2 city council meeting which some citizens say violate their free speech. The mayor read out the new rules after meeting with City Attorney Chuck Watts but left the rest of the city council out of the decision.

The new rules prohibit “comments primarily focused upon the performance of particular city employees that [the mayor] deems to be an ‘attack’” as well as commentary on “matters that are in litigation.”

The new rules put in place by the city attorney and the mayor at the Oct. 2 city council.

“It seems like an abridgement on free speech to me,” said Billy Belcher, an activist associated with the Working Class and Homeless Organizing Alliance and regular speaker at city council meetings.

“The mayor said it was not fair for individual city employees to be attacked from the podium because they can’t defend themselves,” said Belcher, whose speech was interrupted during the Oct. 2 meeting when he brought up the Zared Jones case. “But they can come and speak if they want to speak just like anyone does.”

Watts said in a recent interview that he stands by the rules and doesn’t believe they infringe on First Amendment rights.

“It’s unfair for people to come up and make statements about employees,” Watts said. “It could be slander. We are in a conversation that’s one-sided.

“If there’s a concern about an employee, there’s a forum for that,” Watts added.

City council members including Councilman Justin Outling of District 3, Councilwoman Goldie Wells of District 2, Councilwoman Tammi Thurm of District 5 and At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said they had not known about the rules before the meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said she received a copy of the new rules right before the meeting. Councilwoman Sharon Hightower and Michelle Kennedy did not respond in time for publication.

When asked about the decision to not include the rest of the council, Watts stated that Vaughan “is the presiding officer” and “she’s authorized to do that.”

On Monday, Vaughan stood by her decision.

“It’s up to the mayor to run the meeting, so it was part of running the meeting,” she said.

“The main concern is that I would like us to talk about the bigger issue. In Greensboro we have some big issues that we need to tackle whether that’s homelessness or poverty or rising crime rates.”

When asked about why she put in place the rules about specific employees as well as the one about ongoing litigation, Vaughan said the same people bring up the same issues over and over again.

“Sometimes it is the same discussion months after months after months,” she said.

Marcus Hyde, a Greensboro resident and frequent speaker at city council meetings, disputed Vaughan and Watts’ argument.

“The official way of filing a complaint like with the police department, none of that seems to work,” said Hyde, who has been vocal about the death of Marcus Smith, who died at the hands of police in 2018. “That’s why people raise these issues in the first place and it’s a public forum and that’s the only way to hold these people accountable.”

“If citizens were only to follow the mayor and city attorney’s advice, we essentially would be trusting the police to police themselves by only going through the professional standards division’s process of reviewing complaints,” he continued.

Councilman Outling said in an interview that he has some concerns about the new rules.

“I know you can limit speech that incites violence or insult,” he said. “My concern is that these rules go beyond that.”

When asked about the rules regarding specific employees and speech about ongoing litigation, Outling defended speakers’ rights to talk about both topics.

“People can say whatever they want to say about a lawsuit,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the council has to respond.”

Vaughan said the city’s legal counsel has advised the city council against speaking about ongoing litigation, and that it’s unfair for citizens to bring up cases.

“We have one party that’s getting their story out there and we can’t comment and often what one party is saying isn’t factual,” she said. “It’s very different to hear a case in the court of public opinion when you know that comments that are being put out there as facts and in fact aren’t. The best place for that to be argued is in court.”

Outling said he reached out to city attorney Chuck Watts to talk about the new rules.

“I have talked to the city attorney about the new rules and it didn’t satisfy all the concerns that I had,” Outling said. “I’m concerned that [the rules have] a chilling effect on speech. Where the line is about speech on city employees, you really can’t make any comment at all. I think a better course of action is if someone said something offensive, say so and then if they do it again, take appropriate action. That has the way of enforcing rules so that speakers are not chilled.”

While Johnson, Wells and Thurm declined to comment when asked whether they thought the new rules were unconstitutional, Outling said his first thought as an attorney was whether or not the rules violated the first amendment.

“Honestly we’ve allowed there to be a public forum, so the concern is what are the restrictions you’re placing on free speech and what are your justifications for doing so?” he said.

Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann stated via email that she supports the mayor’s new rules.

“I support the Mayor’s additions to our Speakers from the Floor rules of conduct,” Hoffmann wrote. “We want to hear from citizens, and we need to listen to their concerns and suggestions. But, it is important to make Council meeting time productive.”

Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the nonprofit Freedom Forum Institute, said in an interview that the new rules may be too vague to hold up in court.

“I think the court would take a serious look at the wording that relies on the judgment of a public official of what’s polite or what is deemed appropriate,” said Policinski. “The court likes something firm like speakers can only speak for three minutes. For these rules, how do I know what some of those judgments are gonna be prior to speaking?”

Policinski also stated in a follow-up email that the rule restricting speech on matters under litigation may also be found to be restrictive by a court.

He said that the role of city council is to listen to its citizens.

“The meetings are not for city council,” Policinski said. “They’re an opportunity for citizens to speak to city council and if council member doesn’t like it, that comes with the job.”

Hyde said that he and other activists will fight the new rules and may possibly take legal action against the city.

“Freedom of speech is the most basic part of democracy,” Hyde said. “I think we’re gonna encourage people to come and openly defy the rules because we have to. Otherwise democracy dies if we play by those rules. If the city council dictates what kind of feedback they hear from their constituents, then that’s the exact opposite of democracy.”

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