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ACLU challenges town council's public comment rules

By The Associated Press
02.03.02

PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't think Plum borough's new public comment rules are too peachy.

The ACLU on Jan. 29 asked a federal judge to strike down requirements that residents of the rural borough sign up 30 minutes in advance and speak only about items on public meeting agendas.

The new rules also give the borough council president the right to silence speakers who make comments that he believes are "scandalous, impertinent and redundant." The ACLU is representing four borough residents.

"The First Amendment and the state's Sunshine Law simply do not allow borough officials to restrict residents' speech about important political matters pertaining to Plum's governmental affairs," said David Millstein, a Greensburg attorney who has volunteered to handle the case for the ACLU.

U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose scheduled a hearing on the lawsuit for Feb. 5. The borough's next public meeting is Feb. 11.

The suit was filed after Solicitor Bruce Dice refused the ACLU's request to rescind the policy in the borough about 15 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Dice and the borough's manager did not immediately return calls by the Associated Press.

The lead plaintiff is Harry R. Schlegel, a former council member and now the borough's tax collector. Schlegel contends he was silenced under the new rules at a Jan. 14 meeting because he wanted to criticize the public comment policy.

"Honorable and righteous men do not fear the exercise of liberty. Why, then, do Plum's currently elected officials want to limit and control our liberty to disagree with them if we feel they err on an issue important to us?" said Schlegel, a Vietnam veteran.

"As a Marine, I swore an oath to protect the Constitution, and that's what I and the other plaintiffs are doing with this lawsuit."

The borough council presented the new rules, signed by seven council members and the mayor, at the borough's reorganization meeting Jan. 7.

The ACLU contends the rules weren't formally approved until Jan. 24, when council scheduled a meeting allowing for public comment on them. But no matter when or how they were passed, the speaking rules are illegal, said Witold "Vic" Walczak, executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter.

"Legally, it's not a difficult case and I don't think it's a groundbreaking case, but I think it's an important case because a lot of these little (municipalities) violate" the First Amendment, Walczak said.


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Speaking at public meetings

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