Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Thursday, August 1, 1996

Activists say town squelched free speech at festival, market

The News & Observer, Aug. 1, 1996


CARRBORO - The town that many view as a bastion of liberal activism stands accused of barring free speech.

Joe Herzenberg, a board member of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said he fielded calls from three people who were told - in at least one case by a town alderman - to stop distributing campaign literature during Carrboro Day, a town-sponsored event held on town property in May. Herzenberg said he had also been told another man was asked to leave the Carrboro Farmers Market, also held on town property, after soliciting signatures for a political petition.

In late May, Herzenberg sent the Board of Aldermen a letter protesting the Carrboro Day incidents. The board briefly discussed the letter June 25, but didn't act.

So far the ruckus has been low-key, but it may be about to expand. Herzenberg plans to raise the issue at an ACLU board meeting Tuesday night.

Two of the campaign workers at Carrboro Day were distributing palm cards for Orange County commissioner candidate Margaret Brown. She said the volunteers, one of whom was her husband, Robert, were told to stop, not simply asked.

"It wasn't a choice," she said. "Robert asked if it was."

Senate District 16 candidate Eleanor Kinnaird, a former Carrboro mayor, said she had planned to hand out literature, too. But when she arrived, she heard Robert Brown complaining about what had happened and decided not to try.

Kinnaird finds it ironic that something like this would happen in Carrboro.

"I would say one of the most special qualities about the town is political speech - vigorous political speech - and strongly coming to the government and trying to get things done."

Green Party volunteer Mark Marcoplos says the problems with speech restrictions include the weekly Carrboro Farmers Market. Marcoplos said that on July 20 he was collecting signatures on a petition backing Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, when the on-site manager of the market told him political activity was against the rules and asked him to leave.

Herzenberg said the issue of whether electioneering should be allowed at the market is murkier, because the town's agreement with the market may allow the vendors to enforce such rules.

Town Manager Robert Morgan, who oversees the town's relationship with the market group, said the rule against political activity has been in place for years, since before the market moved onto town property.

"Those are the rules and regulations of the market," he said. "It's not an issue we've looked at in several years, and it might be something I need to raise with the town attorney."

Town Attorney Mike Brough couldn't be reached Wednesday.

Carrboro Day was envisioned as an eclectic arts and crafts celebration with an emphasis on town history. This year's was the first, but the event was supposed to have made its debut in 1995, just before a round of hotly contested town elections. Fearing it would be dominated by politicking, the town-appointed Carrboro Day Committee sent a letter to local pols, asking they they not campaign there.

Alderman Jacqueline Gist, one of her board's liaisons to the committee, said Herzenberg's letter may have exaggerated a little. She doesn't think anyone was thrown out of Carrboro Day. But she agrees that politicking should be allowed.

"I got Joe's letter and said, 'Damn, he's right. We can't tell people what not to tell other people. That's not what Carrboro's about.' "

She says the board may try to change the policies at both Carrboro Day and the Farmers Market.

"I think both things are kind of unforeseen consequences of what were probably well-intentioned rules," she said. "Knowing my board, this will come up at the next meeting and we'll fix it, simple as that."

Mayor Mike Nelson was the only board member to back Herzenberg at the June 25 meeting. He also says politicking should be allowed at Carrboro Day, though he understands the committee's sentiment.

"Everybody makes mistakes, and I think this was a mistake, and that it won't happen again," he said.

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