ACLU Charges Rhode Island Fire District with Again Violating Free Speech Rights of Firefighters

July 29, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI–The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against top Coventry Fire District officials for violating the free speech rights of firefighters at the department’s annual financial meeting in December 2003. This is the third time in two years that the ACLU has filed charges against the fire department.

According to the ACLU, Fire Chief Stanley Mruk and district auditor Conrad Burns, who was a moderator of the December meeting, acted improperly when they prevented four firefighters from speaking at the meeting, blocked them from videotaping the proceedings, and ejected one of the men from the meeting after he left his seat to purchase a soda.

“This lawsuit seeks to remedy but the latest in a long-running series of civil liberties violations by the Coventry Fire District,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Gary Berkowitz, who is lead counsel in the case. “We can only hope that three’s a charm, and that this lawsuit will be the last one needed to finally halt the district’s consistently questionable conduct.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Coventry District firefighters Robert Carlow, James Perry, William Perry, and David Gorman. The men attended the December meeting for the express purpose of asking questions concerning the department and firefighting practices. Three of the men also brought video cameras in order to record the meeting. However, the firefighters were prevented from speaking at the session and were told that only members of the press could record the meeting. In addition, Gorman was ejected for allegedly “disrupting” the meeting by leaving his seat to purchase soda from a vending machine.

The ACLU’s lawsuit argues that these actions “have a chilling effect on the Plaintiffs’ future ability to speak at public meetings, and the same effect upon the general public.” The lawsuit seeks damages and a court order holding that the firefighters have the right to speak at and videotape any public meetings held by the department.

The ACLU’s two other lawsuits against the Coventry Fire District are still pending. One of the lawsuits charges that Mruk violated the constitutional rights of two firefighters when he issued a gag order in 2002 barring them from publicly expressing concerns about the department. The other suit charges Mruk with violating the Rhode Island Open Records Law by not providing public records to a district resident.

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