On The Front Lines
NC Board of County Commissioners Restricts First Amendment Rights, Prohibits Criticism of Government Officials at Public Meetings
ROCKINGHAM, NC — Despite warnings from civil liberties advocates that its actions risk violating the First Amendment, a North Carolina County Board of Commissioners has unanimously adopted a policy prohibiting criticism at public meetings. The Rutherford Institute had warned the Board for Richmond County that its proposed Public Comment Policy could have a chilling effect on free speech and violate First Amendment rights, especially the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances., a.k.a., the right to criticize the government. For example, the newly adopted policy prohibits public comments which are deemed by the commissioners to be “inappropriate” or “harmful, discriminatory or embarrassing to any citizen(s), official(s) or employees of Richmond County,” although the rules do not prohibit praising those government employees and officials. The policy also threatens a criminal offense for anyone who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts a meeting and refuses to leave. Institute attorneys have indicated that they are prepared to challenge the policy should County officials use it to violate the rights of constituents at public meetings.
“One of the key ingredients in a representative democracy is the right to freely speak our minds to those who represent us. In fact, it is one of the few effective tools we have left to combat government corruption and demand accountability,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “We the people have a constitutional right to address our government officials in a public manner so that they can hear our concerns. Indeed, the First Amendment assures us of the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. As such, public meetings of local legislative boards are the quintessential citizens’ forum.”
Adopted in 1997 and amended several times through 2011, the Public Appearance Policy for meetings of the Board of County Commissioners for Richmond County, NC establishes a time “for an open forum” at the beginning of each regular meeting to hear citizens’ comments, and sets forth the procedures and rules for citizens who want to provide input to the Board during that time. However, following a national trend to insulate government officials from criticism and limit exposure to their constituents, the Board proposed revising its policy. The new policy continues to allow the Chair to revoke an individual’s right to speak if the comments are “deemed inappropriate (such as slanderous or libelous remarks).” In addition, the revised policy would also prohibit citizens from making “comments which are harmful, discriminatory or embarrassing to any citizen(s), official(s) or employees of Richmond County,” and from discussing “‘closed session’ type issues,” including personnel matters and litigation. Moreover, commissioners also specifically note in the new policy that it is a criminal offense for anyone to willfully interrupt, disturb, or disrupt a meeting and refuse to leave when directed to do so by the Chair. Urging the Board to reconsider its policy changes, Rutherford Institute attorneys warned that the rules are so vague as to present a significant risk of arbitrary application and viewpoint discrimination. Nevertheless, despite the concerns raised about the policy’s chilling effect on free speech rights, the Board voted on Feb. 1, 2022, to unanimously approve the revised policy.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.