The Greensboro City Council is once again attempting to bring more order and decorum to its monthly public forum, also called “speakers from the floor on non-agenda items.”

Since 2018, the City Council has devoted its first meeting of the month, usually held on the first Tuesday of the month, to holding a public forum. Prior to 2018, the City Council allowed speakers from the floor on non-agenda items at every regular meeting.

As is often the case, the City Council went about establishing the new rules in an unorthadox fashion.  The new rule will ban people who have been removed from a meeting by security for misbehavior from City Council meetings for three months.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan read the new rule along with all the other rules for the meeting and then asked for the City Council to vote on the rule she just read.

Vaughan said, “Starting today, members of the audience or speakers from the podium who intentionally disrupt the meeting or ridicule other speakers will be given a warning and, if unheeded, they will be removed from the meeting. That person will be suspended from in-person participation for three months. In order to preserve their right to free speech, they can attend virtually by Zoom, by phone or by email. It is the goal of the City Council that this chamber is a welcoming space and that our residents feel empowered to bring issues of concern before their elected officials.”

Vaughan then paused in reading the procedures for the meeting and said, “I would like to ask City Council for a vote in support of this new procedure.”

The motion to approve the new procedure was then made, seconded, and a voice vote was held passing the motion by a 7-1 vote, with Councilmember Sharon Hightower voting no. Councilmember Zack Matheny was absent.

After the vote was taken, the City Council then discussed the motion it had just passed.

Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said, “I support you 100 percent on this. I’ve heard from many people in the community and they are hesitant to come down to City Council because of the disruptions, and I think this is a really good move.”

Councilmember Sharon Hightower explained her no vote. She said, “I voted no because I don’t want to limit free speech. While I understand that disruption has to be controlled, I think we have to be careful how we show our actions toward the public. This is the people’s house. It’s not our house.”

This is far from the first time the City Council under Vaughan has taken action to try and control the public forums.  In 2019, Vaughan instituted a rule that didn’t allow the public to speak about a particular city employee in a manner that Vaughan deemed an “attack,” and the public was also forbidden to speak about matters that were in litigation.

Those changes to restrict free speech didn’t last long.

From April through September of 2020, when the City Council met virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, public comment periods were allegedly held, but there was no information on the agenda about how someone could go about speaking at the meetings and no one signed up to speak.