When a policy that would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in a tiny mountain mill town’s municipal parades was first proposed, it was immediately identified as both a sensitive cultural issue and a thorny Constitutional question that cast the Western North Carolina municipality as a microcosm of the complex national debate over the role of Confederate imagery in society today.
At a Friday night football game against Murphy, the Franklin High School cheerleaders took to the field like they do before every game to display a spirit banner for their team’s players to run through.
I’m entering hostile waters here, folks.
So, bear with me as I bring up this ideology I recently heard, which is that feminism and Islam are both “set on destroying the American way of life.”
Feminism is cancer. Patriarchy is good for everyone. The wage gap is a myth. Islam is not a religion of peace. Fat shaming works.
It was a sunny Constitution Day at Western Carolina University, and the colors shone brightly on the giant beach ball — dubbed the “free speech ball” — that the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty rolled from spot to spot.
Sidewalk chalk was all anyone was talking about as campus woke up Thursday morning (April 21) at Western Carolina University. The chalk was everywhere, its biggest explosion around the fountain behind the A.K. Hinds University Center, colorful dust spelling out phrases running the gamut from “Build that wall” and “concealed carry saves” to “Hillary for prison,” and “blue lives matter.”
I watched world leaders with arms linked lead a march of about 1.5 million people in Paris to commemorate the ideals of free speech following the massacre at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by Muslim terrorists. I read about the outpouring of support for the newspaper’s gutsy cartoons that lampooned — in addition to Islamic terrorism — anything and everything.
And then I sought out the cartoons that infuriated so many Muslims so I could see for myself what kind of artwork could engender such emotion. If you haven’t looked, you may or may not want to take the time to do it. These are rough, sometimes vulgar images that are cringe-worthy. Satire has always been one of the cruelest forms of free expression because at its best it insults your sensibilities to get a message across. And these cartoons are insulting.
If you want to protest, you have to protest by the rules — that’s the message the Jackson County commissioners are poised to send to unruly social dissidents.
For the first time in Jackson County, the commissioners may pass an ordinance limiting the scope of how groups may protest on county property. County officials are using an ordinance from Catawba County for the basis of drafting their own.
Jackson County commissioners this week formally attempted to put the kibosh on 83-year-old Marie Leatherwood’s pattern of outbursts, picketing and general garrulity during meetings.
During a meeting last month, Leatherwood was told she could no longer display signs during county board meetings, as she has done regularly over the past two years. She was instead ordered to hold them in the hall outside.
Monday, commissioners passed a resolution that backed off a total sign ban. They decided to allow Leatherwood and others, if they wish, to hold signs in the meeting room after all. But, only if they don’t hold them so as to create distractions. And, if they insist on standing in the manner Leatherwood seems to prefer, sign demonstrators must position themselves along a back wall rather than the front of the meeting room where arguably they pose a distraction to commissioners and the audience.
In return, Chairman Jack Debnam promised to try to encourage speakers to speak up and avail themselves of microphones. Leatherwood, along with others attending, have complained they couldn’t clearly hear county business as it’s being conducted.
“Every commissioner is committed to … making the decisions we believe are in the best interest of the county,” Debnam said. “At the same time, we acknowledge that there will be citizens who have a differing opinion on certain topics and wish to present their point of view. The fact that everyone can express their opinion without fear of retribution or intimidation is the foundation for our free speech.”
Leatherwood heeded neither Debnam’s fine oratory nor the sign and microphone concessions. She appeared more emboldened by the attention than not and was certainly neither subdued nor chastised. Instead of submitting meekly to the yoke of authority, Leatherwood for the remainder of the meeting challenged commissioners and county administrators to speak louder while they were attempting to speak. Leatherwood stood up during the meeting and distributed handwritten notes to members of the news media about free speech rights. She fussed through a laundry list of displeasures to County Manager Chuck Wooten and Attorney Jay Coward as commissioners attempted to transition from a public to a closed session.
Leatherwood, during her rightful three minutes at the podium given each citizen who desires that bully pulpit, sent Wooten meekly trotting after drinking water. Giving an ever-so-slight, discreet cough, Leatherwood explained to commissioners that her allergies were hindering her ability to speak. Wooten’s ministrations came in the form of a small bottle of water retrieved from an adjacent room. He visibly broke the bottle-cap seal in public before handing Leatherwood the water.
Revived by a sip, Leatherwood recovered from her allergy issues and devoted her three-minute address to the board vigorously defending her rights to hold signs in the boardroom.
“The burden of proof is on the board and Mr. Coward, who will prattle about a Louisiana Supreme Court case about holding up signs at meetings,” she said in part in a heated defense of her perceived free speech rights.
In town and county governments there are those dedicated members of the public who speak out and stand up to help hold elected officials accountable … and then there are gadflies. Marie Leatherwood, with a history of flinging wild accusations of thievery and wrongdoing against Jackson County’s leaders, seems squarely in the latter camp.
Last week, Jackson County commissioners clearly had enough — at least enough of Leatherwood’s signs. The 83-year-old, who is less than 5-feet-tall and must rely on Jackson County Transit to get to meetings, was told that she could no longer bring signs into the boardroom. She can display them outside in the hall, however.
The dispute between Leatherwood and Jackson County’s elected officials appears a simple matter of free speech rights versus political leaders’ duties to conduct public business. But the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.
Legal experts are divided on whether signs alone constitute disruptions. And then there’s the Leatherwood factor: her attacks are highly individual, even vile by most people’s standards. The accusations are at times untethered in reality. She uses an allotted three minutes of time, given to any member of the public who wishes to address the board at meetings, to abuse her chosen target’s character, personal integrity and ethics.
Leatherwood can weave a tapestry of conspiracy out of a single cat’s hair, with just about as much evidence to support her claims. She routinely exceeds her three minutes, requiring constant prodding by Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to finish talking so that others have an opportunity to speak. And under a different chairman and previous board of commissioners, Leatherwood once left the meeting room escorted by sheriff’s deputies.
About two years ago, Leatherwood began using props, holding up signs in the board room during meetings.
Debnam’s decision to ban Leatherwood’s signs follow an initial decision made a few months ago to remove her from “press row,” an area reserved for county employees and members of the news media. Seated then directly behind county administrators, Leatherwood chatted distractingly to anyone nearby while business was conducted.
Leatherwood had her signs then, too. Debnam said that he hoped to hinder her ability to distract by asking that she sit in the publicly designated area.
That certainly didn’t work, he noted. Leatherwood promptly took up a new post, standing in the aisle to one side of the board room, signs in hand, in an even more prominent position than before.
“I don’t have anything personal against Mrs. Leatherwood,” Debnam said Monday. “We give her the three minutes to do what she wants to do. I don’t care if she brings an 8-by-10 signboard and props it up while she speaks, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow her to stand in front of everybody during meetings and hold up a sign. I think that’s a disruption, and that it’s uncalled for.”
State law gives elected officials the right to conduct meetings without disruptions. Backed on his legal reasoning by County Attorney Jay Coward, Debnam pulled the plug on Leatherwood’s signs. Leatherwood, predictably but perhaps not entirely inaccurately, cried foul.
“It’s a violation of free speech,” Leatherwood said, adding that she had been shocked by Debnam’s action.
Leatherwood’s signs are generally slightly larger than a desk calendar. They display points she wants emphasized and often excerpts the state’s general statutes. The content varies according to who serves as her latest target.
There’s no doubt Leatherwood’s behavior is difficult, and that her accusations are hostile and, to date, mostly unfounded. But that’s not the issue, according to longtime N.C. Press Association Lawyer Amanda Martin.
Here’s the bottom line, as Martin framed it: would Leatherwood be allowed to hold her signs if she had a history of delivering verbal flowers, kisses and accolades to commissioners instead of flinging wild accusations?
“Is bringing a sign disruptive? I don’t think that simply having a sign is disruptive,” Martin said. “It could be because they don’t like it, that it’s just bugging the commissioners. And that’s not disruptive. I don’t think that’s a violation of the law.”
Debnam said in response that he doesn’t care what the signs say, whether they are in favor of him or against him or for fellow board members or against them.
“I don’t want her to hold anything up,” the Jackson County chairman said.
Leon “Chip” Killian, Haywood County’s lawyer since 1971, supported the neighboring county board’s decision to deem signs in the boardroom disruptive.
“I don’t think my board would look kindly upon someone holding up signs anymore than we would someone interrupting,” Killian said. “I think a sign is a major interference.”
But John Nowack of Sylva, who was an eyewitness to the events unfolding in Jackson County’s boardroom, said that he believed the county’s leaders fell short in understanding and compassion. And, Nowack said, of upholding the simple “human dignity” of an aging, elderly resident.
“I was surprised,” said Nowack, adding that this had been the first commission meeting he’d attended. “They really presented themselves poorly in the way they handled this.”
Longtime Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who previously served as chairman of that county’s board, said balancing free speech with the need to conduct business can prove a delicate undertaking.
“But that’s the privilege of being in America,” Beale said. “You don’t want people to disrupt, and there’s rules to cover that. But if they want to be a part, we welcome them in this community.”
Beale isn’t joking. During one commission meeting in Macon County, the then-board chairman had a speaker during public session flop down onto the floor, apparently making a point that escaped the reasoning of others present in the room.
“I tried to be cordial and respectful, but I said (name of flopper) ‘If you fall on that floor again, I’m going to call 911 and have you carried out of here,’” Beale recounted.
Problem solved, at least in that particular case, Beale said. After that, the flopper remained standing and spoke respectfully.
“It’s a lot how you handle things. If you are antagonistic, it’s not going to get any better,” he said.
That said, Beale heavily underscored the absolute need and right for boards to avoid disruptions by members of the public.
Sylva’s interim Town Manager Mike Morgan echoed Beale’s thoughts. He said that striking the correct balance is difficult. Many board regulars are simply grandstanding, Morgan said. He noted that when Buncombe County, which televises its meetings, opted to turn the cameras off during the public comment segment, the number of people angling to address that board plummeted.
When Haywood County was being inundated by public comment at its commissioners’ meetings two years ago — with the same line-up of speakers taking 90 minutes at the start of nearly every meeting — the county likewise contemplated taking the public comment period off the air to discourage grandstanding. Instead, the county began more strictly enforcing the three-minute time limit and quit answering questions posed by speakers at the podium, a practice that tended to lead to prolonged exchanges.
So far, Leatherwood has reserved her protests for the county, although last week she showed up at Sylva’s town board meeting with a sign in hand. The town has not taken any action to ban signs.
Morgan said that while serving as town manager of Weaverville he cautioned his former staff to listen closely to those who spoke to that town’s board, no matter how familiar and boring it might seem. Every once in a while, Morgan said, board gadflies knock the ball out of the park.
Or, in other words, the fool sometimes emerges the Shakespearean fool: wiser, that is, than the rest of us.