County response to First Amendment suit says removing speaker from meeting isn’t illegal
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - When Neal Schulman, a New Hanover County resident, got up to address the Board of Commissioners in October of 2022, it was clear he wasn’t happy with something the board had done — but before he was ever able to get to his point he was ejected from the meeting.
The reason for his removal?
Former Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman said his comments were personal attacks against her, a claim the county has now reiterated in response to a federal lawsuit filed by Schulman for First Amendment rights violations. That’s a claim that Schulman’s attorney says doesn’t make sense since Schulman didn’t even get a minute to speak.
According to the county’s response to the lawsuit in a motion to dismiss, the exchange went as follows:
Plaintiff: Who in here would enter into a business agreement with Julia Boseman and give her fifty-thousand dollars?
Chairwoman Olson-Boseman (gaveling Plaintiff): And here you’re done. Goodbye.
Plaintiff: I’m not done yet.
Chairwoman Olson-Boseman: No. You’re excused.
Plaintiff: But yet you have the same thing with Novant . . . Chairwoman
Olson Boseman: Remove him. Remove him. This is not . . . you do not attack me personally, bailiff remove him. Time’s up.
Personal attack or protected speech?
When it comes to public meetings counties are required to hold public comment periods under state law.
“The board of commissioners shall provide at least one period for public comment per month at a regular meeting of the board. The board may adopt reasonable rules governing the conduct of the public comment period...” according to General Statute § 153A-52.1.
Those rules do allow commissioners to ensure decorum is followed by setting policies, however, policy and state law is superseded by Constitutional protections. It’s difficult to know what constitutes a personal attack versus genuine criticism which is allowed, and it’s something that the UNC School of Government has addressed.
“Meetings at which citizens criticize employees or board members can be highly charged and contentious events. It’s often difficult for the chair or mayor to control his or her emotions as the line between criticism and attacks become blurred ... Indeed, a threat to cut off unwelcome comments may escalate, turning a criticism into an argument, resulting in removal for disruptive behavior or personal attacks. Regular and consistent enforcement of time limits on individual speakers may be an effective way to avoid a conflict over a disruptive or controversial speaker,” according to Frayda Bluestein who works for the SOG.
Schulman has now retained an attorney, Richard Theokas who said Schulman’s comments are not a personal attack — and there’s no way of knowing what he was going to say since his remarks were cut off within seconds. Theokas argues Olson-Boseman cutting off Schulman was viewpoint discrimination, which is illegal.
“You cannot obstruct what a person wants to say and in this case, we’re not even sure what Mr. Schulman totally wanted to say, although we have some pretty good ideas,” he said. “When she terminated his comments, within 10 seconds, he got the first sentence out and really didn’t complete that before an argument was made that he should be quiet. It’s all on video. It’s hard to refute the video.”
New Hanover County’s attorney believes otherwise.
“… the Complaint alleges that Chairwoman Olson-Boseman engaged in viewpoint discrimination, [D.E. 1-1 p. 2 ¶ 9], Plaintiff did not allude to the topic for his remarks, or his position thereon, until after he was excused for personal attacks. [D.E. 1-1 p. 3 ¶ 19; Ex. B]. To that end, ‘”denying a speaker at the podium in a Commission hearing the right to launch personal attacks does not interfere with what the speaker...” part of the county’s request for a judge to dismiss the case.
Olson-Boseman was the sole commissioner to request Schulman’s removal but his lawsuit also names the commissioners who were also in attendance as well as the county attorney and county manager. Theokas said the reasoning for naming the others in the suit is because they did nothing to prevent Schulman from being removed from the meeting.
“He mentioned Miss Bozeman, specifically, but as the chairman of the committee, is he addressing this, her or the other members of the board? Because of our position that nobody stood up to say, ‘wait a minute, you cannot truncate what this gentleman wants to say.’ Nobody did that, so we’re really taking a look at the entire board,” he said.
Federal lawsuits take time and there’s no telling right now when a judge will decide whether or not the case can move forward or if it will be dismissed as the county is requesting.
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