Trinity tweaks public comment policy
Where is the line between free speech and personal attacks?
Trinity officials are trying to strike this delicate balance when it comes to the city’s public comments at City Council meetings.
The council recently amended the policy that governs the public comment period, which, at times, has involved heated exchanges between residents and council members.
The key change involves new language in the policy that states that “citizens have a right to assert a public complaint or criticism. However, personal attacks on — including, but not limited to — public officials, public employees and/or any other entity or party, are not permitted.”
City Attorney Bob Wilhoit suggested the revision based on guidance from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I think, if somebody makes a general comment that uses derogatory terms or says the whole board is corrupt, then that criticism is fine and often expected with controversial issues,” said Wilhoit.
The revisions seek to limit public criticism to the council as a whole and prevent individuals from being targeted, he explained.
“Personal attacks can lead to fighting words. (The U.S. Supreme Court) says you’ve got freedom of speech, but you’re not allowed to stand up in a (crowded) theater and shout, ‘Fire,’” Wilhoit said. “You have freedom of speech, but there are some limits. You can make your point, but you don’t call people bad names. You don’t call them corrupt.”
Frayda Bluestein, a School of Government professor and expert on local government law, noted that a policy barring personal attacks during public comment periods is legal, as long as the person conducting the meeting distinguishes between criticism and attacks.
Personal attacks don’t have the same type of First Amendment protections as substantive comments about specific concerns or issues, according to Bluestein.
Councilwoman Kristen Varner said she disagreed with the prohibition against addressing individual council members.
“Citizens should be able to say if they’re disppointed in the decision of an individual council member,” said Varner. “I think if we adopt this new policy, it will be selectively enforced.”
The policy already prevents speakers from discussing “issues that concern the candidacy of any person seeking public office” or “matters in current or anticipated litigation.”
City Manager Debbie Hinson said the policy revisions are also aimed at preventing city officials and council members from addressing or responding to speakers during the comment period.
“They will be courteous. We want to get away from being disrepectful,” said Hinson. “Nobody wants to have anybody removed from a meeting.”
Mayor Carlton Boyles said, “If you’re doing the city’s business, you really ought to be talking to the whole council and not just identifying three or five you want to support, because they make decisions as a united council.”