By Corey Friedman
Wilson County commissioners will listen to what you have to say — as long as your words don’t cause them too much discomfort.
That’s the upshot of a new code of conduct approved Monday evening. County leaders rolled out a laundry list of rules for residents who address commissioners during portions of their regular meetings reserved for public comment.
“The Wilson County Board of Commissioners intends to conduct its meetings in an atmosphere of mutual respect, public safety and efficiency,” the policy states. That’s a laudable goal, but some of the new rules give us pause.
“No speaker will be turned away unless he or she exhibits inappropriate behavior,” the code of conduct reads.
Who defines what’s inappropriate? And what happens when commissioners’ definition differs from the public’s?
“Conduct that is threatening, provocative, disrespectful or counterproductive to the public’s business will not be tolerated,” a passage of the new policy warns.
Questions and comments at government meetings should be “provocative.” They should provoke thought. They should provoke discussion. When warranted, they should provoke public action.
What’s considered “disrespectful” is too often in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Will a commissioner say he or she feels disrespected if a resident takes issue with a controversial vote?
Vague and overbroad phrases litter the 14-paragraph policy. Instead of giving residents reasonable and clear guidelines, commissioners offered up ambiguous language that’s open to interpretation — their interpretation.
The Board of Commissioners chairman has wide latitude to limit discussion. Commissioners must seek the chairman’s permission to address a speaker, according to the code of conduct.
County commissioners are elected to represent seven Wilson County districts, and they are accountable to the residents of their respective districts individually and collectively. If a county resident addresses his or her commissioner, we expect that commissioner to respond.
Another problematic provision designates Wilson County sheriff’s deputies, who are sworn to enforce the laws of North Carolina rather than parliamentary rules, as the county’s new politeness police.
“The sheriff’s department will be responsible for insuring that this code is adhered to at the request of the chair or at any other time the department’s personnel observe behavior inconsistent with the code,” according to the policy.
The new code of conduct makes it seem as though addressing county leaders is a privilege rather than a right, and that troubles us most of all. We checked the Constitution. There’s no First Amendment exemption for the Wilson County commissioners’ chambers.
We sympathize with commissioners’ desire to keep order and promote civil discourse at their meetings. But the new rules sail past the narrow realm of reasonable restrictions and into the treacherous territory of punishing protected speech.
Commissioners should go back to the drawing board with the understanding that less is more. Giving government too much discretion over how the public may question it brings to mind that old metaphor about foxes guarding the henhouse.
[Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]
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