ACLU Defends MI Activists Ejected from Public Meeting For Criticizing Police Chief

May 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, May 18, 1999

DETROIT–The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan said today that it is suing the City of Battle Creek and its mayor for stopping two community activists– one of them a pastor — from speaking about alleged police misconduct at meetings of the City Commission.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, the ACLU said that Pastor Mary Gault and Robert Mitchell were illegally denied the right to speak at the meeting about allegations that Police Chief Jeffrey Kruithoff had illegally wiretapping one of his officers. Kruithoff has been sued in civil court over the matter in a separate case not connected to the ACLU.

By denying Gault and Mitchell the right to speak, the ACLU said, the city and Mayor Ted Dearing have violated their First and 14th Amendment rights and have violated provisions of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

At an April 6, 1999 meeting, Gault and Mitchell were told to stop their comments and were threatened with being ruled out of order. After sending Dearing a letter April 15 advising him of their rights, Gault and Mitchell were again ruled out of order and threatened with arrest at a subsequent April 20 meeting. Gault was removed from that meeting by police officers at the direction of Dearing.

Dearing claimed that the comments were impermissible because they were “personal attacks.” Gault and Mitchell say they wished to talk about the effect of the allegations on Kruithoff’s job performance.

“Public debate is central to our democracy,” said Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss. “The right to speak out, especially on matters of abuse of government power, is a sacred right.”

The City of Battle Creek’s policy for public comment at Commission meetings provides that “citizens may address the Commission on any subject.” The only restrictions on this policy occur when a citizen becomes repetitive or takes too much time in the opinion of the chair.

Similarly, the city’s Open Meetings Act holds that “a person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body.”

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