ACLU: Fine owed to Petersburg no excuse for curtailing free speech rights
On February 5, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to Petersburg City Attorney Brian Telfair demanding that Petersburg Resident Linwood Christian be permitted to speak during public comment portion of City Council meetings. Mr. Christian had been told that he would not be permitted to speak at meetings until he had paid or arranged to pay an outstanding fine assessed against him by the city.
Shortly after sending the letter, the ACLU was notified that the ban against Mr. Christian’s participation in public comment had been lifted. The ACLU was also told that the City is now suing Mr. Christian for the unpaid debt. According to the Virginia State Courts website, a warrant in debt was filed against Mr. Christian in Petersburg General District Court on February 5, 2014.
“We are gratified that Mr. Christian will be permitted to exercise his constitutional right to speak at future City Council meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg. “We will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that there is no further infringement of his First Amendment rights, or the free speech rights of any other Petersburg resident.”
Under City Council rules, any person who lives or owns a business in Petersburg may sign up to speak for up to three minutes during the 30-minute “public information period.” The rules do not provide for removal of any person from the speakers’ list for any reason other than time constraints.
The ACLU letter explained that under federal court decisions, government bodies may restrict public comment in order to ensure that the meeting remains on topic and proceeds in an orderly, civil, and timely manner. They may not bar speakers for reasons unrelated to such concerns.