The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit in United States District Court in Cleveland earlier today, challenging on First Amendment grounds the rules of the of North Ridgeville City Council, which forbid individuals from making statements critical of their elected officials during city council meetings.
The council rules, passed in December 2000, forbid citizens from impugning the motives, character or integrity of another person. Those rules have been used during the public comment portions of city council meetings to gavel down those persons expressing views critical of the city government, council members, and the mayor.
“This case cuts to the core principle of our democratic process,” said Kate Ryan, volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation, which is representing North Ridgeville citizens in the lawsuit. “The right of a citizen to engage in spirited discussion and express his or her disapproval of elected officials is the foundation upon which the First Amendment was built.”
Courts have generally been unsympathetic to this type of content-based ban on speech at public meetings. “The dangers of abuse of official discretion over speech have been well documented throughout our history,” said Jillian Davis, ACLU Staff Counsel. “The adage, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it’ has no place in terms of the healthy political debate that is mandated by the First Amendment. Public comment should be just that – a chance for individual citizens to voice their opinions about the government and their representatives, no matter how critical those opinions might be.”
The ACLU is asking the federal court to declare the council rules unconstitutional, and to enjoin their enforcement.