Salem Township Passes Resolution to Allow Residents to Openly Criticize Elected Officials After Settling Lawsuit with ACLU
DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced a settlement today in its lawsuit against Salem Township on behalf of two residents who were removed from a Board of Trustees meeting for criticizing the former township supervisor. The settlement was reached after a federal court denied the Township's motion to dismiss the case.
“We applaud Salem Township’s decision to honor the free speech rights of residents who openly and publicly question the professional conduct of our elected officials,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “The United States has a long tradition of respect for this freedom and our democracy is strengthened, not threatened, by a diversity of voices.”
At its meeting last night, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution acknowledging that “it is a violation of the First Amendment to eject a citizen from a public meeting because the citizen has criticized the official’s performance” and resolved to “respect the First Amendment rights of its citizens and to recognize the rights of the members of the public to criticize… officials based on their performance without fear of any adverse consequences.” In addition, the Township has agreed to pay $27,500 to the ACLU of Michigan and its clients.
On January 8, 2008, ACLU client Bob Uherek addressed the Township Board in a public comment portion of its meeting. He offered the view that the Salem Township supervisor at the time, Fred Roperti, could not be “counted on for openness and transparency.” Uherek was then cut off by Roperti, asked to leave and escorted out by a Michigan State Police trooper and a Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputy. At this time a second resident, also represented by the ACLU, O'Neill Muirhead questioned Uherek’s ejection and was also escorted out of the meeting.
“At the end of the day, elected officials represent us, our concerns, our townships, cities and state,” said Uherek at the time the lawsuit was filed. “I feel strongly that we must hold them accountable and when they try to silence us, we must stand up against their bullying.”
Before filing the lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan worked with Salem Township officials to revise its policy on public comments, which had previously barred "personal attacks." However, the change to the policy did not prevent the Township from violating Uherek and Muirhead’s rights.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in March 2008, charged that the township supervisor’s actions violated the First Amendment and the Michigan Open Meetings Act. In May 2009, the court denied the Township’s motion to dismiss the case, ruling, “It is well settled that freedom to criticize public officials and expose their wrongdoing is a fundamental First Amendment value, indeed criticism of the government is at the very center of the constitutionally protected area of free discussion.”
Uherek and Muirhead were represented by Steinberg and ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorneys James J. Walsh, Kenneth C. White and Candice Rusie of Bodman LLP.
To read the resolution, click here.
To read the complaint, click here.