ROCKINGHAM —The Richmond County government may have violated the First Amendment when denying an outspoken animal rights activist a chance to address the commissioners because of perceived threats from 2019.
According to emails obtained by the Richmond Observer, Pamela Simmons Young on Jan. 27 submitted her request to speak during the open forum section of the February meeting of the Richmond County Board of Commissioners.
Per the county’s public appearance policy, anyone wishing to speak during that time must submit a request with the board’s clerk and state the topic which they intend to address.
In her email to Dena Cook, Young said she wanted to speak about the most recent state investigation of the Richmond County Animal Shelter.
“This is the second time in two years that the shelter, under the leadership of the director Bonnie Wilde, has received substantial fines,” Young wrote. “Ultimately, the taxpayers are the ones who end up paying the fines. But the animals at the shelter suffer from neglect, abuse, dirty cages, hunger, euthanasia, and overall poor shelter management. I feel it is time for the County Commissioners to consider making needed changes at the Animal Shelter. I look forward to hearing back from you.”
Cook responded the following day, asking Young to “please share the date and time of your visits to the shelter during which you witnessed suffering from neglect, abuse, dirty cages, hunger, euthanasia, and poor shelter management” and “any communications you had with staff expressing these concerns.”
Young replied that she didn’t understand why she had to give that information, as the two state investigations “concluded these actions were occurring.”
Cook said she was asking “since it would be useful to our Commissioners and citizens to understand if you were speaking from personal experience.”
“I will share that you are not speaking based on firsthand observations but to the observations of staff with (Animal Welfare Services),” Cook said. “Also, I will share that there is no new information you will share beyond the current public record.”
On Jan. 29, Cook asked Young to confirm several social media posts from 2019, which were comments surrounding that year’s investigation, which found that 10 of 82 animals were euthanized prior to the end of the required 72-hour holding period with no records documenting exceptions.
In one comment, Young said, “Bonnie needs to be euthanized!!” in reference to shelter Director Bonnie Wilde.
In another comment, where someone suggested that Wilde’s photo should be on the page for the “tendencies of passive aggressive people,” Young replied, “I would prefer to see her photo under Watson-King!!”
Watson-King is a local funeral home.
At that time, Young was a contributor to the Richmond Observer.
Following those comments, Jimmy Quick, the county’s information technology and human resources director, contacted the RO, saying those comments “appear to communicate a threat to the safety” of the shelter director.
Young had also written a letter to the editor calling for Wilde’s termination. She recently submitted a similar letter following the latest investigation.
In the email after asking for confirmation on those posts, Cook told Young that her request to speak was denied after “due consideration.”
“Considering evidence of your prior communications of threats toward the Shelter Director, your request is denied at this time,” Cook wrote. “Mr. (Jeff) Smart, Chairman to the Board of Commissioners, asks you to contact me to schedule an appointment to meet with him to discuss your concerns. You will have the opportunity to address the prior threats toward our Shelter Director that we find unacceptable. Chairman Smart expressed that he welcomes this opportunity (to) speak with you.”
Young told the RO that she was “appalled” that the board would not give her five minutes to speak.
Brooks Fuller of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University said that public boards’ comment and decorum issues are “notoriously squirrely and gray.”
“Generally, yes a public body can deny a platform to someone on the basis of their prior conduct but not their viewpoint or ideas,” Fuller said. “That can sometimes get very vague, but generally courts have given public bodies the ability to control their forums for public comment pretty tightly.”
While true threats are not protected by the First Amendment, that category “does not encompass political hyperbole,” according to the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Ken Paulson, director of the center, said the county’s denial is “presumably unconstitutional.”
“Government cannot punish you for your speech,” Paulson said. “By denying an individual the opportunity to speak, that is offered to every other citizen in the community, government is punishing an individual for exercising their constitutional right. That’s not acceptable.”
Paulson said that the key to a threat is that it has to be a specific threat toward a specific person and has to create in that person a fear of immediate harm.
“The language about euthanization is almost certain hyperbole,” Paulson continued. “If they felt it was criminal, they needed to bring charges, not deny somebody the right to speak.”
Both Fuller and Paulson, along with Frayda Bluestein of the UNC School of Government, recently criticized a provision of the county’s public appearance policy which prohibits open forum speakers from discussing, among other topics, agenda items.
Paulson said public bodies need to be very careful on denying someone the opportunity to speak.
Governments are able to establish specific rules on who can and can’t speak and when, according to Paulson. Municipal boards could possibly create a provision that prohibits those convicted of a felony or crime involving an actual threat.
“But they can’t arbitrarily decide that somebody’s viewpoint is not acceptable because of something they have said in the past,” Paulson said.
“Government can’t decide which views are acceptable and government can’t decide which people are acceptable.”