ACLU of North Carolina Announces Successful Resolution Protecting First Amendment Right of Town Resident to Speak at Public Meeting

October 23, 2007 12:00 am

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OAKBORO, NC – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today announced the successful resolution of a battle between local anti-drug activist Brandon Smith and the Oakboro Town Board of Commissioners over Smith’s constitutional right to free speech during the public comment portion of the Town Board of Commissioners meetings.

In a board meeting on June 26, 2007, Smith signed up to speak during the “public comment” session about an ongoing drug problem in certain Oakboro neighborhoods. During Smith’s speech, one of the board members, Terry Whitley, loudly instructed Smith to “shut up and sit down.” Whitley continued to berate Smith until Smith felt compelled to leave the meeting. Neither Mayor Joe Lowder, nor any other board members made any attempt to stop Whitley’s tirade.

After the meeting, Smith met privately with several town officials at the request of then-Chief of Police Donald Whitley. These officials informed Smith that it was inappropriate for him to be discussing the ongoing drug issue in a public meeting. The officials also informed Smith that he should stop addressing the Town Board of Commissioners in any manner that the Board considered to be either confrontational or offensive and criticized him for talking to the media about the alleged drug problem in Oakboro. Finally, one of the officials told Smith that he should not participate in the Town’s upcoming Fourth of July parade, in which Smith planned to participate to raise awareness for his anti-drug cause.

On August 2, 2007, the ACLU-NCLF sent a letter to Oakboro Town Attorney Robert Odom expressing concern that the town officials’ actions violated Smith’s constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment and requesting that Mayor Lowder issue a public apology to Smith in two local papers. That public apology was published in the Stanly News & Press of Albemarle, on October 4, 2007, and in the Weekly Post of Locust on October 10, 2007. The ACLU-NCLF also requested a written acknowledgement that Smith will be permitted to speak at future town board meetings on any matter of public concern, equal to the permission given any other citizen. Finally, the ACLU-NCLF requested reimbursement of the $150 that Smith spent to prepare his car for the Fourth of July parade. The town officials agreed to each of those requests.

“We are happy to resolve this matter without the need to file a lawsuit,” said Katy Parker, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director. “The town officials were wrong to deny Brandon Smith his right to address them regarding the drug problem in Oakboro. We are pleased that Mr. Smith’s rights have been vindicated and that all Oakboro residents will know that they have a right to speak publicly on these types of issues.”

“I am very happy that what happened to me will not happen to anyone else in the future,” said Brandon Smith. “If people cannot address community problems publicly at the local level, those problems will never find a solution.”

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