ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys have today filed a federal lawsuit against the Warwick City Council for stifling the free speech rights of a local resident who was barred last month from speaking at a Council meeting about allegations of ethical misconduct aimed at one of its members. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, argues that the censorship of Robert Cote’s comments was a blatant violation of his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of petition.
The Warwick City Council allocates time at its meetings for the public to address the Council on matters “directly affecting city government.” At the July 17th meeting, Cote sought to address allegations contained in a Providence Journal article regarding the role of Council Member Donna Travis in a controversial acquisition of land from the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association. The lawsuit notes that Cote “wanted to raise the issue of the transaction as it related to Travis’s ethics as a member of the City Council.”
However, as soon as Cote mentioned the news story, Travis cut him off from speaking about it – claiming it did not involve city government – and had a police officer remove him from the meeting. A few days afterwards, Travis said she also relied upon an unwritten City Council policy against “personal attacks” during the public comment period to ban Cote from speaking.Cote had also wanted to comment on two additional city-related issues at the meeting, but never got the chance to do so as a result of Travis’s actions.
The lawsuit argues that Travis’s denial of Cote’s right to speak at the meeting, and the rest of the Council’s acquiescence in that censorship, violated Cote’s First Amendment rights. The suit seeks a court order to allow him to speak at an upcoming Council meeting on the issues he intended to raise at the July meeting, “as well as any future comments he wishes to make respecting matters affecting Warwick government”; a declaration striking down the Council’s “unwritten practice of preventing members of the public from making comments critical of individual public officials” during the public comment segment of Council meetings; and an award of monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.
Plaintiff Cote said today: “In my years of advocacy, my local government has become increasingly hostile to anyone who challenges the status quo. I am grateful to the ACLU of Rhode Island for defending everyone’s constitutional rights and for stepping in to hold Warwick’s government accountable for its actions against me. I am hopeful that Warwick elected and full-time employees come away from this situation with an understanding that, although they temporarily hold power, they should listen to and respect every one of their constituents – even the ones who criticize.”
ACLU attorney Lyons added: “Once government officials create a forum for public content, they cannot restrict the public’s comments because they do not agree with the comments or the comments offend them.”
The following was the full extent of Cote’s comments before he was thrown out of the meeting: “Good evening, just a little bit about some local politics and I have some official city documents to share. First, I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman Travis for another front page of the Providence Journal.”
A copy of the complaint and a video of the confrontation can be found here. Earlier this month, the ACLU and the New England First Amendment Coalition sent the City Council a letter denouncing the censorship of Cote.