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RI ACLU, Cote, Expand Cote Free Speech Suit to City

[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 resulting Cote Free Speech Suit has been expanded to include the city of Warwick.
WARWICK, RI — The ACLU of Rhode Island and frequent city critic Rob Cote have expanded the Cote free speech suit protesting Cote’s ouster from a July 17 2023 City Council meeting to include the city of Warwick and Finance Director Peder Schaefer.

Cote said Friday the suit was amended after a lengthy time negotiating with Travis seeking a public apology for the violation of his free speech rights. Shortly after filing the suit, the RI ACLU urged the Warwick City Council to make a statement reassuring the public of their free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“Councilwoman Travis’ willful violation of a residents first amendment rights has placed the city in jeopardy and is an example of the continued toxic environment present at city council meetings.  The lack of the city council to take action against her or distance themselves from her compound the existing toxic environment and only serve to reinforce her despicable behavior,” Cote said.
The suit is being expanded due to the failure of the council and the city to take serious action to settle the mattter, Cote said.

Cote’s July 15 Attempt to Speak before Council

“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 July 17. The article concerned a property dispute Travis is involved in.

“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 a 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.

Following the suit, the ACLU sent 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.

In September a consent order was issued in the lawsuit in which the City Council has agreed to allow Cote to “speak for up to five minutes at the Sept. 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. Cote exercised that right at that meeting.

Cote said he has spent the months following the lawsuit insisting on a public apology from Travis, which she has refused. The suit was subsequently expanded to include the city as well as the City Council, including Schaefer in his capacity as finance director. A copy of the amended suit has been attached to this article below.

The amended lawsuit seeks the  following demands:

  1. A declaration that Defendants’ denial of Plaintiff his right to speak at the July 17, 2023, Council meeting violated Plaintiff’s right to freedom of speech and to his right to petition the Government for redress of grievances;
  2. A declaration that Defendants’ unwritten practice of preventing members of the public from making comments critical of individual public officials during the public comment segment of City Council meetings is unconstitutional;  
  3. An interim injunction temporarily and preliminarily enjoining Defendants to permit Plaintiff to speak at an upcoming Council meeting about the matters he intended to address on July 17, 2023, as well as any future comments he wishes to make respecting matters affecting Warwick government;  
  4. An award of nominal damages against all Defendants, except Stephen McAllister, in their official capacity, and compensatory and punitive damages against Travis, in her individual capacity, for violation of his constitutional rights; 
  5. An award of Plaintiff’s costs and reasonable attorney fees, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988; and
  6. Any additional relief to which Plaintiff may be entitled.

Additional Reading

ACLU Urges Council to Reassure Public of Free Speech

ACLU Files Warwick City Council Free Speech Suit

In Trying to Dispel Smoke, Travis Started a New Fire

Council Takes Undisclosed Vote on Cote Free Speech Suit

Cote vs. Travis, WPD, Warwick .docx (1)
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 WarwickPost.com. Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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