Richmond, VA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a lawsuit today against the City of Petersburg for violating the First Amendment rights of a resident who was prohibited from speaking at a city council meeting solely because he owed an unpaid fine to the City. The lawsuit is seeking monetary damages for the violation of the resident’s constitutional rights that took place earlier this year.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Linwood Christian, a Petersburg activist, who was prohibited from speaking during the public comment portion of the Petersburg City Council meeting in January 2015. He was told that the sole reason for the ban was an unpaid fine Christian incurred during his unsuccessful run for School Board in 2014. In March 2015, the fine was paid.
“The City of Petersburg may not impose unreasonable restrictions on the free speech rights of its residents to speak during the public comment portion of a government meeting, and it certainly may not impose payment requirements on speech,” said ACLU of Virginia Staff Attorney Hope Amezquita.
Christian added, “I’m very active in the Petersburg community and it is important to me that City Council hear my views. The City publicly humiliated me when they barred me from speaking because of a financial debt. ”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond. A copy of the complaint can be found here.
In February 2015 the ACLU of Virginia 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.
“We are filing this lawsuit to seek compensation for Mr. Christian for the violation of his rights in January,” said Amezquita. “But we hope that the lawsuit will also persuade the City not to engage in similar constitutional violations in the future.”
In addition to Amezquita, Christian is represented by ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.