Guilford County Commission Chairman Skip Alston is defiant about pursuing a proposed policy to limit video presentations by citizens to material pre-cleared for placement on the agenda. He said he has not seen the ACLU letter charging that the policy appears to be in violation of the First Amendment, but responded to some of the points I relayed to him.
Alston rejected the notion that the requirement that the only way to show is video is to seek approval from his Agenda Review Committee constitutes a prior restraint on speech. He said the free-speech rights of citizens such as Jodi Riddleberger are not being restricted because they can speak all they want during the public comment period, just not with video.
“If we do have access to video [in the meeting room], it’s our right to restrict access,” he said.
I asked how the county commission justified allowing its officers and employees to use PowerPoint, video and other electronic media to make presentations but restricted citizens to oration.
“We’re elected officials and we’re serving our privileges,” Alston responded. “She is not an elected official with privileges to use the facilities at our whim. She can’t come up and sit in my seat.”
Parker’s letter cites the Supreme Court’s 1992 Forsyth County, Georgia v. the Nationalist Movement ruling, which found that a government regulation “that allows arbitrary application is ‘inherently inconsistent with a valid time, place, and manner regulation because such a discretion has the potential for becoming a means of suppressing a particular point of view.”
The government bears an even greater burden in establishing that restrictions on the content of speech are necessary to serve a compelling governmental interest than it does in justifying time, place and manner regulations, Parker writes, while viewpoint restrictions are “patently unconstitutional.”
Alston told me he considers the county’s proposed policy to be a content restriction.
“As far as content, I think there should be some kind of restrictions on freedom of speech,” he said. “You can’t yell fire in crowded movie theater.
“The situation was she showed a video that we didn’t know what was going to be on it,” he added. “If that was the case then anybody could come up and show a pornographic video. What she tried to do is endorse certain candidates.”
If the county commission’s concern is what material a citizen might show on a video, I asked Alston how he would respond if a citizen came up to the podium during the speakers from the floor segment of the meeting and started graphically describing sex acts.
“Stop them,” Alston responded. “A person can come up there and, within reason, say whatever they want to. They also have to be respectful and maintain decorum. I can call them out of order if they are not respectful and do not maintain decorum.
“I can call them out of order for showing a video that is promoting a political agenda,” he added.
I pointed out in response that the First Amendment explicitly guarantees the right of people to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Alston concurred that the First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to criticize their elected officials, but drew the line at promoting candidates.
The speech also “has to be based on governmental business and not personal business,” he further stipulated.
I noted that Alston turned down a request by Riddleberger to be placed on the agenda to show a video addressing the proposed policy change on multimedia presentations, which directly related to governmental business.
In response, Alston reiterated his stance that Riddleberger was free to address her concerns to the commission during speakers from the floor without the aid of a video.
What was the difference between using a video to make a public presentation and holding up a newspaper while addressing remarks to the commission, I wondered. Would the commission restrict citizens from holding up a copy of YES! Weekly or the Rhino Times while drawing attention to an article about a matter of concern, I asked.
Alston said he views this kind of free-speech activity differently.
“You can talk all you want within those parameters,” he said. “When you stop talking your constitutional right to speak has always been granted.”
Alston also rejected my suggestion that this dispute boils down to protecting even the most unpopular speech.
“I want to protect all speech,” he said. “I’m a proponent for free speech. I fight every day for free speech. When somebody tries to make a mockery and over-extend those parameters it’s a different thing.
“If the courts say that we’ve violated someone’s free speech we’ll stand corrected. At this point our lawyer says we’re in no way violating someone’s free speech by not allowing them to show a video.”