Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Speaker kicked out of commissioner meeting by Olson-Boseman files lawsuit

Shulman is seeking $50,000 in compensation, claiming the chair violated his First Amendment rights along with New Hanover County commissioners’ rules of procedure and code of ethics. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Almost all New Hanover County commissioners and two county staff members are being sued in civil court for their involvement in removing a public speaker from a meeting earlier last month. 

On Oct. 3, New Hanover County resident Neal Shulman approached the podium to speak during the public comment period at a commissioners’ meeting. Although each speaker is allotted 3 minutes to voice concerns on non-agenda items, Shulman uttered only one sentence before being interrupted.  

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“Who in here would enter into a business agreement with Julia Boseman and give her $50,000?” Shulman asked the commission.

Chair Julia Olson-Boseman slammed her gavel and told Shulman: “Neal, you’re done — goodbye.” 

When Shulman objected, the chair excused him anyway and continued to hit her gavel as Shulman continued his comments.

“But yet you do the same thing with Novant,” Shulman said. 

“I will not have you attack me personally,” Olson-Boseman said. “Bailiff, please, remove him. Your time’s up.”

Shulman is seeking $50,000 in compensation, claiming the chair violated his First Amendment rights along with New Hanover County commissioners’ rules of procedure and code of ethics. 

In his court filing, Shulman states commissioners Deb Hayes, Rob Zapple and Bill Rivenbark, along with County Manager Chris Coudriet and County Attorney Wanda Copely, were complicit in the violations due to lack of intervention. Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was absent at the Oct. 3 meeting.

“[Not] one of the committee members and the remainder of the Defendent membership called the chairwoman to a point of order, objected in any way to her conduct, nor objected to the dismissal of the Plaintiff from the public comment period of this general meeting,” the suit indicates.

Shulman told Port City Daily, though he could not speak much to the case, each defendant had a duty to uphold free speech and failed to do so. 

“I believe in the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution in North Carolina,” Shulman said. “And I believe that if you cannot follow the laws as a public official, you should either be removed, or we should vote you out.”

Olson-Boseman — who first was elected a NHC commissioner in 2000 before going onto serve in the Senate and then being reelected to the local board in 2018 and 2020 — is not up for reelection in November. She lost the primaries earlier this year, garnering 22.55% of votes. 

Olson-Boseman and Rivenbark declined to comment to Port City Daily about the lawsuit; the other commissioners listed in the filing did not respond by press.

While the constitution guarantees individuals the right to express themselves freely and without legal recourse from the government, specific laws dictate time, place and manner of expression.

North Carolina General Statute 160A-81.1 requires at least one public comment period during regular meetings of governing bodies and also stipulates no restrictions be placed on the subject matter of any speaker. 

The lawsuit’s language argues Olson-Boseman’s silencing was discriminatory and “invidious” — in other words, “arbitrary, irrational and not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose.”

“It is abundantly clear that Defendant Olson-Boseman’s objection was based on what it was that she thought he was attempting to say,” the suit describes.

160A-81.1 also allows officials to provide for the maintenance of order and decorum in the conduct of the hearing. Rules of this nature can be determined by each local municipality. 

Under the commission’s Rules of Decorum, the chair has the power “to determine whether a speaker has gone beyond reasonable standards of courtesy in his or her remarks and to entertain and rule on objections from other members on this ground.” 

However, the commission’s rules do not restrict the subject matter of speakers during public comment. 

Mike Tadych, a lawyer that works with the North Carolina Press Association, weighed in on the matter. 

“I believe that rules limiting the content of comments (or not allowing criticism of commissioners or staff) would be constitutionally dubious,” he wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “Part of your First Amendment rights include the right to petition your government for the redress of grievances.”

Tadych also pointed to general statute 143-318.17, which regulates disruptions to meetings. 

“A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor,” the statute states. 

Tadych told Port City Daily the statute would most likely not be applicable because Shulman was speaking during public comment and left willingly when asked to do so. 

Shulman argues in his lawsuit he “conducted himself calmly, quietly and politely.” 

Port City Daily reached out to the county about the lawsuit, since the county manager and county attorney, present at the meeting, are implicated.

“​​The county does not have any comment to provide on pending litigation,” NHC spokesperson Alex Riley said on behalf of Coudriet and Copely. 

Shulman said it is important to hold officials accountable for their actions because “no one has the right to discriminate.” 

“I’ll pursue it as far as I have to,” he said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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