Board of Aldermen Asked to Change Rules to Prevent First Amendment Violations

Wendy Card talks about First Amendment Rights
Wendy Card talks about First Amendment Rights during New Bern Board of Aldermen meeting

Last night, May 10, 2022, I addressed potential violations of the First Amendment during the Petition of Citizens to the New Bern Board of Aldermen.

If you’re thinking about talking during this time, you’ll need to fill out a form with your name, address, phone, email, and topic. When it’s your time to speak, the mayor will call your name and asks you to state your residential address.

Here is what’s written on each agenda:

“This section of the agenda is titled Requests and Petitions of Citizens. This is an opportunity for public comment, and we thank you for coming to the Board of Aldermen meeting tonight to share your views. We value all citizen input. Speaker comments are limited to a maximum of 4 minutes during the public comment period. At the conclusion of 4 minutes, each speaker shall leave the podium. Comments will be directed to the full board, not to an individual board member or staff member.”

“Although the board is interested in hearing your comments, speakers should not expect any comments, action, or deliberation from the board on any issue raised during the public comment period. In the board’s discretion, it may refer issues to the appropriate city officials or staff for further investigation. If an organized group is present to speak on a common issue, please designate one person to present the group’s comment, which shall be limited to a maximum of 4 minutes.”

I explained that residents have expressed concerns about the current procedures. They want to participate but are apprehensive.

Here’s why:

– People don’t want to announce their address. According to the City of New Bern’s Code of Ordinances, they are not required to. All they need to say is if they are a resident or not.

The New Bern Board of Aldermen (BOA) can have this policy requiring citizens to identify themselves and state their address, but they cannot enforce it. If a citizen refuses to identify themselves or disclose their residence, they must still be allowed to speak during a public comment period under statute and under the First Amendment.

– Secondly, citizens want the opportunity to address individual board members.

The BOA’s rule designed for the maintenance of order and decorum restricts the content of speech. This potentially violates the First Amendment.

The City’s Code of Ordinances also notes, “Speakers must be courteous in their language and presentation. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.”

With that said, members of the board should not be able to personally attack people attending the meeting.

I fully researched this topic and conferred with a municipal attorney who agrees with these findings.

In closing, I requested that the board stop asking citizens to identify themselves with their address and allow them to direct questions or comments to any or all members of the board.

May 17 is the election for the New Bern Mayor and Aldermen. Early voting has already started. Please vote.

By Wendy Card, Editor