Should public petitioners identify themselves?

February 22, 2010 

Requiring name, address chills free speech


Two critical rights guaranteed by the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions are the rights to free speech and to petition our government.

These rights are perhaps most important at the local level. Individuals are often more inclined to get involved in matters that directly affect their homes, their local communities and their children.

Even people who do not consider themselves political might be motivated to appear before their city council, county board of commissioners or school board to ask questions and raise concerns.

North Carolina law requires local government entities to "provide at least one public comment period per month" at a regular meeting. Although a school board or city council may adopt reasonable rules regulating conduct during the comment period, it cannot chill a citizen's rights to speak and petition.

Currently, the Wake County school board requires everyone who wants to speak during meetings to state his or her name and address out loud, in front of the audience and the news media, often including TV cameras.

Such a requirement has an impermissible chilling effect on speech. People who might otherwise choose to be heard in front of their local school board might understandably think twice about speaking - especially on heated issues - out of the fear that anyone watching TV could copy their home address and later harass them.

The requirement is unreasonable. Reasonable alternatives, such as a sign-in sheet for speakers, exist for maintaining order during the public comment period. That should suffice.

Katherine Lewis Parker is legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

If you have something to say, tell us who you are


Accountability, a bulwark of democracy, is under attack in Raleigh, where the ACLU says anybody should be able to push anonymously at public meetings for pet policies.

The immediate target of the state's ACLU chapter is Wake County's school board, whose longstanding policy sensibly requires speakers to state their names and addresses.

This policy promotes personal responsibility and decency, because people are more likely to behave when they know everyone else knows who they are.

And by establishing local residency, it also reduces the odds that ACORN or Tea Partiers will bring in outsiders to influence local policies.

If the ACLU's view prevails, it won't be long before anonymous advocates show up at Raleigh's City Council seeking favors, instructing the Wake commissioners on what to do and demanding whatever action the advocates prefer.

Think about the faulty logic: I, Mr. Nunya Bidness, demand time at a public meeting to tell public officials what they should do with public programs and public money - and nobody else has a right to know who I am?

That's not democratic, it's dangerous. What's next, public parade permits for secret pressure groups? Covert political ads?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that citizens have a constitutional right to produce anonymous fliers. But this is different. Anonymous speakers at public meetings aren't printing fliers people are free to ignore, they're taking unaccountable advantage of a captive public audience that can't judge their credibility.

So if you demand something from Us the People, forthrightly disclose who you are.

Or stay anonymous by staying home.

Matthew Eisley edits The N&O's North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service