New rules for Raleigh city hall speakers spark censorship debate

·3 min read

At an early June City Council meeting, people critical of Raleigh stood in a line, each with 3 foot signs.

The signs were measured when they got into the Raleigh Municipal Building and again in the city hall chambers.

“The Raleigh City Council is gentrifying the Black communities with bus rapid transit,” read one sign.

“Raleigh, we don’t fund colonialism here. Not in our city,” read another.

Now, less than a month later, the City Council has voted to change the rules for community members attending its meetings effective Aug. 1.

“There were some people who felt intimidated when they were speaking,” Mayor Mary Ann Baldwin told The News & Observer in an interview. “There were others who could not see. The signs were blocking their sight. And there were a number of complaints we received. So we looked at it and decided to address it.”

People hold signs during a June 7, 2022, Raleigh City Council meeting.
People hold signs during a June 7, 2022, Raleigh City Council meeting.

‘Arbiters of free speech’

Under the new rules, signs must be less than 18 inches by 18 inches, compared to the 36 inches by 36 inches previously allowed.

“Regardless of what’s on the signage, if they start to interfere with the experience of people around them or behind them or somehow negatively impact the experience of other people in the group, we have measures to basically trespass those people from the meeting,” said Rich Kelly, director of the city’s engineering services department.

The change led to a debate among council members Tuesday about what kind of signs they should allow during government meetings.

City Attorney Robin Tatum repeatedly told the council it could not regulate the content of the signs.

Council member David Knight said he disagreed and said there are some things that are prohibited. He asked if people could bring signs with curse words on them.

“I don’t want my kids reading some of the things I’ve seen on signs here,” he said. “Or pictures.“

“But it’s not about what we like,” said Council member Stormie Forte. “It’s about what’s protected by the First Amendment and Constitution.”

“I don’t think some of those things are protected,” Knight said.

“I think most of them are,” Forte said.

“Most. That’s different,” Knight said.

“I mean, you’ll end up in court,” Forte said.

Council member David Cox voted against the new rules.

“I’m really astonished at the discussion about censoring people, censoring political speech, censoring what people can and can’t say,” he said. “I’m astonished that we think we are the arbiters of free speech.”

Other changes

The new rules also eliminate the sign-in method for speakers that Raleigh has used.

The city will now start using metal detectors and using a metal detector wand to scan bags.

Previously pocket knives, with blades less than 4 inches, were allowed in city hall but now all weapons including pocket knives will be prohibited.

“I appreciate these recommendations,” said Council member Jonathan Melton. “I’m particularly pleased with the security measures. I was always surprised that we don’t have any of that in place here. When you go to the county, the courthouse, for example, or the Justice Center, where the county offices are, you have to go through security. I think it will really help for everybody’s safety — staff, the public, ours.”

The new rules apply to city buildings that have significant public foot traffic including the municipal building, One Exchange Plaza and 310 W. Martin St.