Raleigh city council rule change has organization claiming it bans free speech

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A sponsored post on Facebook that’s expected to reach thousands of people reads “Raleigh City councilors ban free speech.”

The post is paid for by YIMBY Raleigh, which is an organization focused on the city’s growth and planning.

“This most recent change, I think, is unconstitutional under the First Amendment,” said Brent Woodcox, founder of YIMBY Raleigh. 

Woodcox made the post after council members voted to change the public comment rules at Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I would like to add the following item: All comments should be addressed to the council as a whole. Addressing individual councilors is not permitted,” read council member Dickie Thompson. 

They voted people can no longer address council members individually at meetings. The mayor and council member Nicole Stewart weren’t present for the vote. 

“Only the city council, as a body, can take action. All remarks must be addressed to the city council as a body and I will remind a speaker about this provision if it is forgotten,” said council member Corey Branch in the meeting.

“To a certain degree they’re just trying to keep themselves out of the spotlight by saying, ‘Well you can’t address me directly,'” said Woodcox. 

The city attorney released the following statement: 

“Council’s action was to add a provision to its Rules of Decorum that has long been a part of the City Code (see Code Section 1-1031). There appears to be some misunderstanding as to the purpose of the Rule, which in no way limits the content of a person’s speech, but instead simply assists in maintaining order in the meeting. This Rule does not control in any way what a speaker can say or who the speaker can talk about; it instead directs speakers to address his or her comments (regardless of the content of the comments) to the entire City Council that is holding the public meeting, and not to specific individual members. This rule is not uncommon (e.g., the Town of Cary has the same rule). Also, and importantly, when City Council meets, it can only act as a single body, and requests are made to the Council as a whole, and decisions are by majority vote. Therefore, addressing remarks to only one member is not productive for this reason as well.”

However, critics say the action still comes from individual votes.

“Every citizen has the ability to address their council member and at least four people that sit on that council represent them, while four others don’t,” said Woodcox. 

Stewart released the following statement: 

“Public comments are not always positive, accurate, or even kind. However, this is one of the many pieces of a functioning democracy. We should be looking for ways to make it easier for residents to make public comments and participate in government.”

Council member Stef Mendell referred to the city attorney’s statement when asked for a comment. CBS 17 requested statements from the remaining council members has not heard back.

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