Free speech or rude disruption? Jackson County bans woman from holding signs during meetings
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.
‘It’s a disruption’
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.
Violation of law?
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.”
A difficult task
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.