Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Speaking to city council on censorship

GREENSBORO, NC -- Last night, I was not joined by Yes!Weekly publisher Charles Womack to speak out against the City of Greensboro's preposterous attempts to censor his newspaper and we did not address the city council during speakers from the floor. I did though.

Here is the text of my remarks (hyperlinks added):
Honorable Mr. Mayor and City Council,

My name is Roch Smith, Jr. I built and operate, a website that collects and links to the latest news, blogs, tweets and videos from the people of Greensboro.

Last week the City of Greensboro attempted to censor local newspaper Yes!Weekly. Police attorney Jim Clark and Police Chief Ken Miller secretly filed a lawsuit, without notifying Yes!Weekly, that attempted to get a judge to stop Yes!Weekly from publishing a story about police surveillance.

I find this action shocking. Not only was this stunt an affront to the the legal principles against prior restraint well established for decades since the Supreme Court ruled on the Pentagon Papers, it was a brutal assault on government transparency in its underlying purpose which was to hide from the public information about the police spying on law-abiding citizens. This is not the Greensboro I thought I knew. Nor is it the one in which I think we want to live.

Doug Clark, editorial writer for the News & Record described this stunt as “bizarre and disturbing.” He's right. He also said “City Council must demand a full accounting of police surveillance policies and activities." He's right about that too but this is just the latest and most disgraceful episode of a larger problem, an ongoing adversarial and overly secretive approach by the City's legal departments towards the public's right to know what our government is up to.

Since last July, I have been trying to obtain records from the city about the extent to which the City of Greensboro surveils and monitors the public at-large – those of us not suspected of any crime or evoking suspicion, but just going about our daily business. How, when, why and for whom is the City watching us? The city has successfully kept that information secret largely by citing laws intended to stop terrorism.

The citizens of Greensboro need to assert themselves, through our elected representatives, as the overseers of our local government, not its subjects or its children, and change the city's posture towards one of genuine openness and transparency and away from the kind of overreaching secrecy that has earned us the rare and appalling distinction of being a City that tried to censor a newspaper.

[The mayor interrupted here and told me to "wrap it up." I skipped the following paragraph and jumped to the last.]
The city's approach to public records is broken, more than I can describe in a mere three minutes, but I have kept city council apprised by email. So, I'm asking you, as an accompaniment to examining police surveillance policies to also take control of the City's broken approach to public records requests. Which is what got us here.

I leave it up to you to decide how best to get there, but I am asking specifically for city council to take some type of concrete action that will expeditiously result in a public, city-council approved set of directives that instruct city employees how to approach public records requests. One that reorients our city away from secrecy and confrontation and towards cooperative and real transparency. Will you please begin this undertaking as soon as possible?

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