The mayor of Greensboro is receiving backlash after the placement of new rules that some Greensboro citizens say violate their right to free speech.
As of Oct. 2, the public speaking rules that Mayor Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro situated in place were put into full swing. The mayor verbally listed the fresh regulations after a separate meeting with Chuck Watts, City Attorney, without the presence of the remaining members of the city council.
Details of the new rules ban, “comments primarily focused upon the performance of particular city employees that [the mayor] deems to be an an ‘attack’” in addition to prohibiting talk about, “matters that are in litigation.”
Activist with the Working Class and Homeless Organizing Alliance and frequent attendant of city council meetings, Billy Belcher, shared his thoughts on the rules.
“It seems like an abridgement of free speech to me,” said Belcher. “The mayor said it was not fair for individual city employees to be attacked from the podium because they can’t defend themselves. But they can come and speak if they want to speak just like anyone does.”
Watts addressed in a recent interview that he doesn’t believe the rules interfere with the First Amendment rights and he will continue to support them.
“It’s unfair for people to come up and make statements about employees,” said Watts. “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.”
Many city council members, including Councilman Justin Outling of District 3, Councilwoman Goldie Wells of District 2, Councilwoman Tammi Thurm of District 5 and notable others said they had not been made aware about the changes before the meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson stated she received a copy of the new rules moments before the meeting.
When confronted about her neglect concerning the rest of the council, Watts stated that Mayor Vaughan holds the title of “presiding officer” and she has the authority to take such routes. Vaughan cosigned the description of her job by saying, “It’s up to the mayor to run the meeting, so it was part of running the meeting.”
When asked about the rules covering specific employees and ongoing litigation, she stated that it is always the same people bringing forward the same issues every time and that she would like to address bigger issues such as homelessness, poverty, and rising crime rates.
One resident is strongly against the position that Vaughan and Watts’ argument takes.
“The official way of filing a complaint, like with the police department, none of that seems to work,” said Marcus Hyde, who is a Greensboro resident and also an active community member in city council meetings. He has also been a powerful voice when it comes to the death of Marcus Smith, a man who died at the hands of Greensboro 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.”
Councilman Outling also voiced concerns about the rules in an interview with the Triad City Beat.
“I know you can limit speech that incites violence or insult. My concern is that these rules go beyond that.” said Outling, then saying that when it comes to the rule about employees and litigation, “People can say whatever they want to say about a lawsuit. It doesn’t mean the council has to respond.”
According to the mayor, the legal counsel of the city has coached the city council against addressing ongoing lawsuits and it is unfair for citizens to bring them up.
“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,” said Vaughan. “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.”
Councilman Outling has reached out to city attorney Chuck Watts about these controversial new developments, according to his Triad City Beat interview
“I have talked to the city attorney about the new rules and it didn’t satisfy all the concerns that I had. I’m concerned that [the rules have] a chilling effect on speech,” said Outling.
“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.”
Outling has been quite verbal in his disapproval of the debated violation of the first amendment, while other council members Johnson, Wells and Thurm turned down interviews.
To the contrary, Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann shared her support via email for the mayor’s new rules.
“I support the Mayor’s additions to our Speakers from the Floor rules of conduct,” wrote Hoffmann. “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.”
President and chief operating officer of the nonprofit Freedom Forum Institute, Gene Policinski, was quoted in an interview with the Triad City Beat, saying 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?”
In a follow-up email. Policinski said that the rule restricting speech on matters under litigation may also be found to be restrictive by a court. He maintains that the purpose of city council is to listen to the citizens.
“The meetings are not for city council,” wrote Policinski. “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 join forces to undo the new rules and to possibly take legal action against the city.
“Freedom of speech is the most basic part of democracy,” said Hyde. “I think we’re going to 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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