Right to Speak at City Council Meetings, Christian v. City of Petersburg and W. Howard Myers
The ACLU of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Petersburg and the Mayor, W. Howard Myers for violating the First Amendment rights of a local resident and activist, Mr. Linwood Christian, who was prohibited from speaking at a city council meeting on January 20, 2015 solely because he owed an unpaid fine to the City. The City may not impose unreasonable restrictions on the free speech rights of its residents to speak during the public comment portion of a government meeting.
After the violation occurred, we wrote to the City of Petersburg to explain that barring Christian from speaking based on his debts violated the First Amendment, and to seek assurances he would not be barred from speaking at future city council meetings. At that time, the City Attorney indicated that Christian was no longer barred from speaking, but would not guarantee that he or others would not be excluded in the future based on unpaid fines. The City Attorney followed up in writing, confirming that the bar had been lifted, but refused to say that it would not be reinstated or to acknowledge that the original ban was unconstitutional.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for Mr. Christian for the violation of his rights at the January 20, 2015 city council meeting and to persuade the City not to engage in similar constitutional violations in the future.
On Nov. 23, the City of Petersburg and Mr. Christian reached a settlement agreement in which the city would pay $3,000 to the ACLU of Virginia to cover its costs of representing Mr. Christian. The city also agreed to release a public statement about the case, which can be found in the settlement agreement below.