Mayor sets new rules for public speakers at Greensboro City Council meetings
At the Oct. 2 meeting of the Greensboro City Council, Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced a new code of conduct for members of the public speaking to the council. The mayor said anyone violating these rules might be declared out of order and asked to leave. The entirety of the document that Vaughan read aloud is reproduced in the four italicized paragraphs below:
Comments primarily focused on the performance of particular city employees will not be entertained in this forum, and be ruled out of order. That does not mean that we can’t talk about departments and performance of departments, but we do not want to talk about specific employees. There is a process for performance reviews, and members of the public are free to provide any such commentary. For example, to the human resources department, where that information might be appropriately addressed there. This council has the ability to hire and fire a very limited set of employees, and all employees have the right to have their performance review handled confidentially. So, the place for such commentary would be the appropriate office of the city staff.
Comments primarily focused on matters that are in litigation will not be entertained in this forum. Litigation occurs in the courts, and I will rule out of order comments by individuals that appear to be intended to impact litigation process through public comment during our meetings. This is not an alternative public forum for promoting any particular citizen’s view of matters that are being addressed in the court.
Comments that seem to be intended to incite unlawful behavior within this room or outside this room will be deemed out of order. This is a forum for the council to hear from citizens of Greensboro about matters of concern that can be addressed by this council.
The City of Greensboro is committed to promoting an environment that is free of discrimination, bias and bullying. Thus, harassment of words, jokes and actions, or comments based on an individual’s sex, sexual preference, race, ethnic background, age, religion, physical condition, or other legally prohibited characteristics will not be tolerated.
The council has previously attempted to impose “civility” on members of the public who shout or speak loudly from the audience, but this is the first time restrictions have been placed on those who sign up to speak from the podium. For the past year, some of those speakers have been calling for the resignation or firing of Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott for not disciplining the officers who fatally hogtied Marcus Deon Smith at the 2018 Folk Festival, and for making public statements that those speakers have called lies.
The second paragraph of the new rules could be invoked to prohibit speakers from talking about the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Smith’s family. It could also prevent members of the public from speaking about the gag order a Superior Court judge placed on body camera videos of a 2016 altercation between Zared Jones, three of his friends, and five GPD officers downtown, which is now being appealed. And it could prohibit speaking about the disciplinary proceedings against attorney Graham Holt, who wrote an August email to the city council describing the alleged police misconduct he claimed to have seen on the police body camera videos the Jones case.
Some of these issues were put to the test on Wednesday night.
Billy Belcher of the Working Class & Homeless Organizing Alliance was allowed to speak about Smith but told by the mayor to “move on to another topic” when he introduced the subject of Jones. (Belcher’s entire speech can be viewed on YouTube.)
Another member of the Working Class & Homeless Organizing Alliance, Luis Medina, asked if he was allowed to say Smith’s name, to which the mayor said yes. Medina then asked if “I’m allowed to say ‘fire chief Scott,’ because you should, and so should you, city manager David Parrish,” whom Medina described as “hiding in the corner.”
Medina took the city council to task for what he described as laughing at him, and other speakers then presented a list of demands from his organization. Although Medina had been ejected for speaking from the audience at the Aug. 5 meeting, he spoke uninterrupted from the podium at this one.
Brian Watkins, a regular speaker at council meetings, has repeatedly gone beyond the accusations of GPD brutality made by others. Watkins has called for armed intervention when citizens see police misconduct, and for the formation of “a new Black Panther party.” At a previous meeting, he expressed his intention of resisting any officers called to eject him but left when Mayor Vaughan asked security to escort him from the building.
When Watkins took the podium on Wednesday, he asked for a copy of the new rules, which he characterized as “this egregious trampling of our first amendment rights.”
“I don’t want to say anything illegal,” he said but talked about the need for “a well-regulated militia to the fix the problems we’re in.”
Another person to criticize both the city council and the new rules was blogger and activist Ben Holder, who admonished council members to “act like you care” and took them to task for what he described as paying more attention to their mobile phones than the people speaking to them. He also criticized them for allegedly saying, “we thank you for your years of service” to “a city employee” who was “allowed to retire.” While he made a point of not naming the person he meant, Holder appeared to be referring to Deputy Chief James Hinson, who recently stepped down after an employee at a group home run by Hinson was arrested for sexually assaulting a minor.
After the meeting, I asked Mayor Vaughan if the new rules had been voted on or discussed with other council members.
“No, I just talked to Chuck about that,” said Vaughan, referring to city attorney Charles Watts. She said that “there’s been a lot of discussion from the podium about specific city employees and they are not in a position where they can defend themselves, and it’s really been month after month where the employees are targeted.”
When asked if she was referring to Chief Scott, Vaughan said, “I am not speaking about any city employees specifically, but there are multiple employees where speakers from the floor get up and make certain allegations. You can mention a city employee, but when you talk about a city employee doing things, and talk about them in a slanderous way, and they don’t have the ability to defend themselves, I think that crosses a line.”
She also referred to the third paragraph of the new rules. “I think when you advocate violence, it’s irresponsible on our part to let it go out over the airwaves. I have to have the ability to stop that.”
District 1 Representative Sharon Hightower said after the meeting that she was not comfortable with the new rules.
“I think it gets into matters of freedom of speech, and I’m a little taken aback by tonight’s regulation. First, we’ve not had any discussion around what was being presented, and I was a little shocked as I listened. Are we targeting certain people who’ve been consistent about talking about certain individuals, or are we just saying we don’t want to open ourselves up to personnel issues? But I think there’s nothing wrong with allowing people to talk about certain issues. This was a forum started to allow people to come get it off their chest, no matter what it is they’re frustrated about. And I feel like now we are putting too many constraints on freedom. So, I’m very concerned and would like to have more discussion about what the thought processes are. Sometimes you’ve got to say what you think in the presence of people who elected to serve you.”
Representative At-large Michelle Kennedy, who was not present at the meeting, later wrote in a text message that the new rules were a surprise to her, and to several of the council members who were present who were not present.