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ACLU Urges Council to Reassure Public of Free Speech

[CREDIT: City of Warwick] A Warwick Officer escorts Rob Cote from Council Chambers July 17, 2023. Councilwoman Donna Travis ordered him removed for persisting in speaking about a property dispute detailed in a Providence Journal article involving Travis.

[CREDIT: City of Warwick] A Warwick Officer escorts Rob Cote from Council Chambers July 17, 2023. Councilwoman Donna Travis ordered him removed for persisting in speaking about a property dispute detailed in a Providence Journal article involving Travis.
[CREDIT: City of Warwick] A Warwick Officer escorts Rob Cote from Council Chambers July 17, 2023. Councilwoman Donna Travis ordered him removed for persisting in speaking about a property dispute detailed in a Providence Journal article involving Travis. The ACLU of RI has urged the Council to reassure the public of their free speech rights during public comment.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information about the 2021 land transfer from the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association to Donna and William Travis. 
When reached for comment Friday, Cote said Travis fails to understand her role and responsibility to accept criticism, as a public servant.

WARWICK, RI — The ACLU of Rhode Island has made a free speech argument protesting frequent city critic Rob Cote’s ouster from a July 17 City Council meeting moments into his allotted public speaking time addressing a Providence Journal article about Councilwoman Donna Travis.

“First, I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman Donna Travis. Another front page of the Providence Journal,” Cote said during the first two sentences into his public comment time. The article concerned a property dispute Travis is involved in.

“You will be talking about city government, or you will be leaving,” said Travis.

“This is about city government,” Cote said.

“Stick to a topic about city government or else you’ll be escorted out,” Travis said.

“This is about city government. It’s actually mentioned about the Warwick City Council…”

“Did you hear what I just said?” Travis interrupted.

“OK,” Cote replied.

“I don’t care, any one of the council people, you do not take attack to, stick to a city government issue, and then we’ll go forward.” Travis said.

“This is about city government issues. We have an elected official…”

“OK, somebody want to take him out?” Travis said.

“You know this is going to be with the ACLU?” Cote asked.

“He’s all done.” Travis said.

A short time later an Warwick Police Officer walked up to Cote and escorted him from the room as Travis encouraged a more speedy ouster.

“You’re leaving now. I’m sure he can read. Go,” Travis said.

ACLU ‘deeply troubled’ by Travis’s actions

The ACLU did respond to Cote’s removal from the meeting, sending a letter, co-signed by the New England First Amendment Coalition, to the Warwick City Council, Mayor Frank Picozzi, City Solicitor Michael Ursillo  and City Clerk Lynn D’Abrosca.

“We are deeply troubled by the actions taken against Mr. Cote that evening as we believe they are not only contrary to the letter and spirit of the Council’s public comment policy, but they raise serious First Amendment concerns,” wrote Steven Brown, Executive Director, ACLU of Rhode Island.

Brown defended the two sentences Cote uttered before Travis interrupted as clearly relevant to city government as set out in the City Council’s public comment policy, Rule 41, requiring speakers to limit their comments to issues “directly affecting city government.”

“There can be no question that the newspaper article he [Cote] managed to refer to and wished to talk about clearly met Rule 41’s standards,” Brown wrote. “Whatever the validity of the allegations that have been raised against Councilor Travis and her role in the controversial acquisition of land from the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association, claims that a municipal official may have engaged in ethically questionable conduct indisputably implicate city governance. It is clearly a topic of public concern, and Mr. Cote should have had the opportunity to speak about it. Escorting him out of the meeting based on the content and viewpoint of his anticipated remarks is antithetical to the whole goal of allowing public comment.”

Brown also contested Travis’s comment about not allowing personal attacks on public officials, which she stated to Cote during the meeting and also in a Warwick Beacon article.

“Again, leaving aside the impropriety of relying on an “unwritten” policy to censor the speech of a member of the public, any such policy itself is just as problematic from a First Amendment standpoint. In fact, courts have often struck down such restrictions as a violation of the public’s free speech rights,” Brown wrote.

Brown referenced New York Times v. Sullivan, a seminal free speech ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court noted the country’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

“We recognize that the Council has the right to set reasonable restrictions on how the “public comment” period of its meetings is conducted, such as limiting the amount of time people can speak, and it certainly can prohibit disruptive behavior. However, the Council’s treatment of Mr. Cote at the last City Council meeting cannot be squared with its obligations to honor the robust commitment to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment,” Brown wrote.

“As an elected public official, anything that she does in the media or as a matter of public record is a government issue,” Cote said. Regarding the council’s policy against public attacks on public officials, Cote recommended council members review Times vs. Sullivan.

“They should do some fundamental research on the law,” Cote said.

In a similar case in 2004 the Tiverton School Committee settled a 2002 lawsuit in which the ACLU of RI challenged their policy barring the public from orally initiating “charges” or “complaints” against school employees during the public comment portion of School Committee meetings. The school district agreed to pay $7,500 in attorneys fees to the ACLU lawyers in the case.

At the moment, the ACLU is asking for a less fiscal free speech resolution.

“We therefore call upon the Council to reassure the public that this type of response will not be repeated and that residents will be free to speak at future meetings on matters involving city government without fear of being silenced,” Brown wrote.

Cote is seeking his own remedy. “I have retained legal counsel.” he said.

Dispute over 2021 land transfer

The issue Cote sought to bring up at the council meeting centers on a quitclaim deed that Travis and her husband, William, signed in 2021 to take possession of the property next door to their home at 733 Oakland Beach Ave.

According to local media reports, the deed stated that the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, was transferring ownership of the land at no cost to Travis and her husband, who have been using and maintaining the property, as well as paying taxes on it.

The Travises have also held leadership positions in the association for several years, including Donna’s service as Director since 2019, President in 2018, and Vice President in 2017 and 2016.

Following a change in leadership at the association, its new members scrutinized the transaction. Association President Deb Shatley, listed as holding the position in the group’s annual report since 2021, originally raised concerns about it, according to the Warwick Beacon. Earlier this year, Shatley contacted Cote about the matter.

Local media quoted Travis as saying the transfer was legal, and that the controversy is being driven by people from out-of-state.

Travis did not reply to the WarwickPost’s requests for comment prior to the publication of this article.

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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