WARWICK, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has released a RI public speech report on rules for public bodies in 39 Ocean State communities as its lawsuit against the Warwick City Council for violating civil critic Rob Cote’s First Amendment rights July 17 lingers in settlement talks.
During the July 17 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. But Cote was escorted from the Council meeting moments into his allotted public speaking time.
The suit argues 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 and future matters and a declaration striking down the Council’s “unwritten practice of preventing the public from criticizing public officials during the public comment, and an award of monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.
When reached for comment on the suit, the ACLU of Rhode Island reported it is in talks with the City Council to settle the matter. Mayor Frank Picozzi’s office reported no new developments in the suit. Warwick City Council President Steve McAllister declined to comment, since the lawsuit is ongoing.
Cote said Travis and the entire City Council violated their oaths of office when Travis interrupted his comments and ordered an officer to escort him out of the meeting. The Warwick City Council’s oath, Cote reminded the Council during its Jan 17 meeting, requires them to uphold the Constitution, including preserving his right to speak during meetings. Travis, he said, “Has no idea what that means.”
ACLU of RI Issues Public Speech report
The Warwick City Council and Warwick School Committee, according to the RI ACLU report, each allow 30 minutes for public speakers during their meeting, with the City Council granting 5 minutes per speaker and the School Committee granting 2 minutes. Each body has rules limiting public speakers’s speech challenged in the RIACLU suit. For the Council, the rule is an unwritten prohibition against personal attacks, which the ACLU argues is unconstitutional and is asking the court to nullify in its lawsuit, asking for a “declaration striking down the Council’s unwritten practice of preventing members of the public from making comments critical of individual public officials during public comment.”
The Warwick School Committee’s similar rule is written on their agendas. “Comments shall not contain inappropriate or salacious remarks.”
When reached for comment on the report, McAllister said it doesn’t include the Council’s additional speaking time beyond the public comment segment of its meetings.
“In Warwick, the public can speak for up to ten minutes on each and every item on the agenda. They can also speak during our public comment period as well. For example, at our meeting last week, a resident spoke for almost ten minutes on an agenda item during the finance committee, and later he also spoke for five minutes during ‘public comments’. So in Warwick every resident has an opportunity to be heard on every agenda item before the council, and an additional opportunity to speak about any city issue (on the agenda or not) during public comments,” McAllister said.
McAllister also noted a correction to the ACLU report. “People do not have to sign up before the meeting. We have a sign up sheet on podium during committees, and I always give a last call for anyone who wants to sign up right at the start of public comments. So as long as someone is present when we get to the public comment part on the agenda, they are able to speak,” McAllister said.
“While most council and committee meetings include at least some time for public comment, residents may be prevented from speaking by policies that contain overly restrictive time limits, rigid sign-up requirements, or “decorum” rules that may unconstitutionally restrict speech. The report offers a series of recommendations designed to promote meaningful public input at council and school committee meetings without unduly burdening the public bodies,” RIACLU notes in its report.
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