Safeguarding Freedom of Speech: First Amendment Protections at City Council Meetings

audience_speech_speaker_1677028-1024x768The diverse range of viewpoints expressed at city council meetings often evokes mixed reactions from attendees. While some voices may test our patience, it is crucial to recognize that the First Amendment safeguards individuals’ freedom of speech during such gatherings. A case involving Tom Heaney’s experience at a Jefferson Parish city council meeting in Gretna, Louisiana, sheds light on the constitutional rights protected in these limited public forums. The subsequent legal proceedings provide valuable insights into the requirements for successfully pursuing a First Amendment claim related to alleged silencing in such settings.

Tom Heaney registered to speak at a Jefferson Parish city council meeting in Gretna, Louisiana. The city council rules allowed registered individuals to speak for five minutes. After Heaney had spoken for approximately three minutes, the presiding official, Christopher Roberts, interrupted him and asked him if he would yield to the Jefferson Parish attorney. Heaney thought he would get the remaining two minutes back after the attorney spoke because that happened with the prior speaker who yielded. However, after a heated back-and-forth between Heaney and Roberts, Roberts asked for Heaney to be removed. 

A police officer, Ronald Black, responded to the request to remove Heaney. Heaney then filed a lawsuit, claiming that Roberts and Black had violated his constitutional rights, including the First Amendment, and that Black had also committed various torts. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court denied Roberts’ summary judgment motions concerning the First Amendment claim but granted Black’s motion on the First Amendment claim. Comparing these two outcomes provides insight into the requirements to succeed on a First Amendment claim involving purported silencing in a limited public forum.

The constitutional right in the First Amendment claim against Roberts was the right to be free from viewpoint discrimination at limited public forums such as a city council meeting. Although the government can impose restrictions, such as time limits, at limited public forums, such restrictions or regulations cannot discriminate based on viewpoint and must be reasonable. See Fairchild v. Liberty Indep. Sch. Dist

Roberts claimed that he was entitled to qualified immunity concerning the First Amendment claim because when the issue with Heaney occurred, he was acting in his official capacity for Jefferson Parish. Here, Heaney had not violated the time limit restriction. So, to determine if viewpoint discrimination had occurred, the court would have to decide whether Roberts had an improper motive in silencing Heaney. The appellate court agreed with the trial court that this was a factual dispute that a jury would need to decide. Therefore, the appellate court dismissed Roberts’ appeal concerning the First Amendment claim. 

Black also claimed that he was entitled to qualified immunity under the First Amendment. He argued that he was responding to a direct order to remove Heaney. The appellate court agreed that Black did not need to second-guess Roberts’ First Amendment motives before removing Heaney. See Collinson v. Gott. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Black. 

The case of Tom Heaney and his encounter at the city council meeting serves as a reminder of the fundamental importance of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. Moreover, the denial of Roberts’ summary judgment motion and the dismissal of Black’s appeal demonstrate that First Amendment claims involving viewpoint discrimination and alleged silencing are nuanced and fact-specific. 

Seeking the guidance of a knowledgeable attorney is crucial when facing potential infringements on one’s constitutional rights, whether at a city council meeting or any other public forum. Understanding these legal protections empowers individuals to assert their voices and contribute to the democratic discourse.

Additional Sources: Tom Heaney v. Christopher L. Roberts; Parish of Jefferson

Written by Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on First Amendment: Lawsuit Over Speech Rights and City Interests Shows Need for Competent AttorneyHow the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 971, The “anti-SLAPP” Statute Used in Court

Contact Information