AG: Wilmington Council president violated open meetings law by barring dissenter

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Hanifa Shabazz, (left), violated Dion Wilson’s legal right to address City Council, the Attorney General’s Office ruled. (City of Wilmington)

Hanifa Shabazz, (left), violated Dion Wilson’s legal right to address City Council, the Attorney General’s Office ruled. (City of Wilmington)

Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz violated the state’s open meetings law by not allowing a frequent government critic to speak during the public comment period on Sept. 19, the state Attorney General’s Office has ruled.

Dion O. Wilson, the man barred from addressing members, is also facing harassment and disorderly conduct charges for making profane and allegedly threatening remarks before and after his banishment. A Court of Common Pleas trial is set for Nov. 25, but Wilson’s attorney has filed a motion seeking dismissal of the charges.

After being denied the right to speak during City Council’s 30-minute public comment period, Wilson filed an appeal with the state arguing that Shabazz’s action ran afoul of the Freedom of Information Act.

Deputy Attorney General Dorey L. Cole rejected the city’s argument that the public comment period was not part of the official Council meeting and therefore not subject to the open meetings law.

Cole also ruled that Wilson’s use of profanity at the Sept. 5 meeting was not a legitimate reason to issue a “pre-emptive bar” on Sept. 19.

“A public body is permitted to remove, and therefore bar the speech of, any person ‘who is willfully and seriously disruptive of the conduct of such meeting,’’’ wrote Cole.

Cole noted that the city did not remove Wilson on Sept. 5 despite his cursing. “Instead, the city prevented you from speaking” at the next meeting,’’ Cole wrote.

Cole also wrote that even though Wilson shouted a profanity on Sept. 19 after being denied the chance to speak, that was irrelevant to the issue of whether he should have been permitted to do so.

Contacted Monday, the 71-year-old Wilson would not comment, instead referring WHYY’s call to his attorney David Finger.

“I’m happy for Dion that he was vindicated, that he cannot be censored in advance of speaking,’’ Finger said. “That is, he cannot be barred from speaking just because they didn’t like something he said in the past.”

Finger said his client’s remarks were protected by his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and has filed a motion to get the criminal case thrown out of court. The charges were based on his profanities in and outside the meeting, as well as from a year earlier when he said that if Shabazz was a man, he would beat her up, according to the arrest affidavit.

The affidavit said Shabazz was “concerned for her safety.”

Finger countered that his client “didn’t say he would hit her or threaten her. He said that it she was a man, he would do that but obviously she isn’t a man so he’s not going to do that.”

Shabazz responded to Cole’s ruling by issuing a written statement saying she would follow the law and thanking the state for clarifying it.

“In my 15 years as a member of Council it was always implied that public comment was not a part of the City Council meeting agenda,’’ she wrote, repeating the argument it would not fall under the open meetings law.

Shabazz stressed, however, that ”as presiding officer of City Council, it is my responsibility to maintain order.”

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