Resident considers lawsuit after county commissioner throws him out of meeting for criticizing her

Resident considers lawsuit after county commissioner throws him out of meeting for criticizing her
Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 12:05 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The right to criticize the government is a Constitutional right granted by the First Amendment. On Monday, New Hanover County Commission Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman had a resident, Neal Shulman, removed from the public meeting when he tried to do just that.

“Who in here would enter into a business agreement with Julia Boseman and give her 50 thousand dollars?” Shulman asked the board during the public comment period of the meeting.

Olson-Boseman began banging her gavel and speaking over him.

“And here you’re done, goodbye,” she said.

Shulman continued speaking for several seconds, but Olson-Boseman continued to hit the gavel and asked a ‘bailiff’ to remove him from the room. Shulman willingly turned away from the podium and walked out of the meeting room with a deputy.

Amanda Martin is an attorney who deals with First Amendment rights as well as other media and speech-based concerns. She says that from what she saw in the meeting video, Shulman’s removal was due to what he said — and not based on public meeting law.

“If a public body has a public comment section as they do, then the body cannot start to censor who speaks based on what it is that the person is saying. That is a classic viewpoint of discrimination, that would be the legal term for it and that is the least tolerated restriction of speech,” Martin said.

Shulman is no stranger to the Board of Commissioners and has spoken out against them in the past, but says this is the first time he has been removed from a meeting. Martin says the First Amendment protects his right to voice his concerns with government officials --- as long as he doesn’t do it in a manner contrary to state and federal laws.

“It appears to me as if he was being respectful, he was calm, he was not in any way disruptive as the open meetings law would define that to justify his removal. He obviously was saying something that the chair did not want to hear. But the First Amendment allows for that sort of dissent and allows for that freedom to speak even freedom to say things that aren’t well received,” Martin said.

There are times when members of the public can be removed from a public meeting or silenced, but those are limited circumstances.

“A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor,” according to North Carolina law.

Shulman might have been critical of commissioners, but Martin said that based on what she saw, his removal does not seem justified.

“Mr. Shulman stood up. He wasn’t doing anything disruptive of the meeting. His only crime, so to speak, was saying something that displeased the chair,” Martin said. “The fact that Mr. Schulman was called upon, began to speak, and then he was stopped and escorted out of the room. Clearly, it was based on what it was that he was saying.”

As for remedies, it’s not easy to hold public officials accountable. It often takes a lawsuit, which is time-consuming and expensive.

“It takes a long time, it takes a lot of nuance, litigation, and nothing that’s quick. But there are remedies there and especially if this is a recurring thing, someone might just get pushed over the line to decide. In fact, I’m gonna pursue that,” Martin said.

Federal law allows lawsuits against state government employees and those acting under state law who deprive another citizen of their constitutionally protected rights.

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law ...” the law reads in part.

As for Shulman, he said he is considering legal action against the county which he knows could be a time-consuming process.

New Hanover County declined to comment on the actions of Olson-Boseman and Shulman’s ejection from the meeting. County Commissioners have not responded to email requests about her actions either.