An important principle for a democracy was broken last Monday night in Middlesex.
A citizen speaker recognized during the public comment portion of the town board meeting was prevented from finishing her remarks and escorted by police out of a meeting that by law is open to the public and then out of the building — not because of disruptive conduct but simply because the mayor and board did not want to hear what she had to say.
Becky Strickland has made herself a very large thorn in the side of Middlesex officials over the last few years, seeming to challenge almost everything the town does as improper or illegal, usually in caustic language more vinegar than sugar.
Sometimes she is right, sometimes she is wrong, always she’s expressing her own low opinion of town officials. A heavy barrage of accusatory emails has frustrated and angered town officials and annoyed state officials.
Before the public comment portion of the meeting, Town Clerk Jennifer Lambert told the board about Strickland’s accusations and said some of them were “slander, libel, and defamation of character. It needs to stop. Now.”
And Mayor Lu Harvey Lewis responded, “I agree it needs to stop.” On Tuesday, he added, “We are not going to sit in a meeting and listen to any more insults. We are done.”
No, he isn’t, and can’t be. Government officials answer to voters and taxpayers, and a big part of their job is to listen to their constituents, respond to their concerns and, yes, sometimes endure their insults.
Under state law, moreover, meetings are open to the public and when the meeting allows the public to speak, citizens have a right to do so no matter what they say. Only when someone disrupts or disturbs a meeting are they allowed to be restrained.
“Based on what I have read, I believe the ejection of Becky Strickland from the public meeting was a violation of her First Amendment rights,” said Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association. “If it is correct that she was not disruptive, then her removal was clearly based on the content of her remarks.”
She noted, “Once a public forum is created — such as the public comment portion of a meeting — the government cannot censor what is said beyond reasonable limitations to address issues such as safety.
“It compounds the violation that Ms. Strickland was forced to leave the meeting which, by law, must be open to the public. ‘The public’ means all of the public,” she said, “not just those who hold views with which elected officials agree.”
Becky Strickland was simply talking, as she was recognized to do, when the mayor lost patience and gaveled her quiet before the police escorted her out. And it turns out from the unheard written comments she later released, she had some valid issues that do merit a response.
Citizens who speak out in public can and should be held accountable for their remarks. But silencing their voice is never the legal, or proper, response. Free speech is a foundation of an open democracy.