Before we scold the Richmond County Board of Commissioners for approving another problematic public comment policy, we have to give credit for the positive changes commissioners made.
One provision of the previous policy, which had been on the books for two decades, prohibited speakers from discussing items on the agenda for that meeting. Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, said in February 2021 that the limitation posed “pretty serious concerns for free speech.”
Frayda Bluestein of the UNC School of Government agreed.
“The public comment opens up (a) forum for any comments about anything related to the business of the board,” Bluestein told the RO via email. “So the board can’t prohibit citizens from talking about the agenda items during the public comment period.”
“What good is a public comment period if it doesn’t allow the public to discuss business that is about to come before the body?” Fuller asked.
We wondered the same thing.
Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center of Middle Tennessee State University, called the provision “wrong-headed,” “odd” and “unusual,” but didn’t believe it violated the First Amendment.
We applaud Commissioner Andy Grooms for getting the topic on the agenda, which finally happened last November.
Grooms said the county government shouldn’t “be standing in the way of citizens speaking their mind — even if it is five seconds before a vote.”
Commissioner Tavares Bostic agreed, saying, “Everyone in the county should have an opportunity to come and state their case on, really, whatever they want to state their case about.”
Grooms also said commissioners should give residents enough time to review the agenda so they could sign up to speak.
Prior to the new policy, speakers had to sign up on Friday before the meeting. The problem was that sometimes the agenda wasn’t made available until after the 5 p.m. deadline.
Board Clerk Dena Cook revised the policy following the November meeting, striking the topical prohibition and requiring the agenda to be posted online the Wednesday prior to the meeting, essentially giving potential speakers 48 hours to review it.
The only problem Grooms had with the draft was the shortening of individual speaking time from five minutes to three minutes, a revision adopted when commissioners approved the policy Feb. 1.
However, instead of just making the requested changes, Cook added a few other provisions that raised our eyebrows, and those of free speech advocates, making it just as bad — if not worse — than the old policy.
Prior to the meeting, the RO published a story on the policy with Fuller again expressing concerns about the draft, specifically portions that seemingly limit speakers to county residents or property owners; prohibit comments or matters that are “harmful, discriminatory or embarrassing to any citizen(s), official(s) or employees of Richmond County;” and prevent speakers from discussing closed-session issues and matters in litigation.
Fuller referenced a 2016 post from Bluestein where she evaluated those limitations and essentially shot them down.
Forty-five minutes prior to the meeting, attorney John Whitehead of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute sent a letter to commissioners with similar concerns.
“The limits on speech imposed by these rules in the proposed Policy are not only contrary to the First Amendment but are unwise,” Whitehead concluded. “For citizens to feel vested in their government, they must know that they are free to express their views and be heard by their representatives. The Rutherford Institute therefore urges the Board to revoke these rules and provide its constituents with a free and open forum for speech.”
Commissioner Toni Maples told the RO that she never received the letter.
However, considering she said commissioners had discussed the article featuring Fuller, we doubt Whitehead’s worries would have made a difference.
We encourage commissioners to take another look at the policy and make it more free-speech friendly.