A consent order has been entered in the federal lawsuit filed two weeks ago by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys against the Warwick City Council for stifling the free speech rights of local resident Robert Cote, who was barred last month from speaking at a Council meeting about allegations of ethical misconduct by one of its members. The order, entered with the agreement of the parties by U.S. District Judge William Smith, obviates the need for a hearing on a formal temporary restraining order against the City Council, which the ACLU had been seeking.
Under the filed consent order, the City Council has agreed to allow Cote to “speak for up to five minutes at the September 18, 2023 Warwick City Council meeting to address the topics he intended to address on July 17, 2023,” and “on other matters directly affecting City government,” and to do so at “other future City Council meetings” that have a public comment period.
The lawsuit, filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, argues that the censorship of Robert Cote’s comments at the July 17th Council meeting violated 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 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. 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, which the ACLU lawsuit also challenges. 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.
ACLU attorney Lyons said today: “We are gratified that we have been able to protect Mr. Cote’s First Amendment rights to speak at City Council meetings.”
The ACLU will continue to pursue the lawsuit in order to obtain permanent relief on Cote’s behalf. A copy of the order and background information on the lawsuit can be found here.