Man Silenced During Public Comment Period Can Proceed with Claim

A Wisconsin man can proceed with his complaint in federal court over being silenced during a public comment period at a town meeting, a federal judge has ruled – providing an example for  public officials nationwide.

Roger Hoeppner sued the town of Stettin, Wis., and the head of the town board, Matthew Wasmundt, for ordering Hoeppner to quit talking at more than one town meeting in the summer of 2013.

According to the record, Hoeppner accused Wasmundt of approving a particular driveway project at one meeting and at another meeting said another board member a “yes man” for Wasmundt.

Hoeppner contends that the ban amounts to viewpoint, or at least content-based, discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. The town and Wasmundt counter that Hoeppner was silenced because he was disruptive.

Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, allowed Hoeppner’s claim to move forward in her May 12 decision in Hoeppner v. Town of Stettin.  She determined that a reasonable jury could find in Hoeppner’s favor on this part of his free-speech claim.

“The fact that Wasmundt tolerated [Hoeppner’s] statements until [Hoeppner] criticized Wasmundt directly could be viewed as further evidence that Wasmundt was upset with [Hoeppner’s] criticism rather than his manner of speaking,” the judge wrote.

Government officials create a designated forum for speech when they open up the microphone for a public comment period.  During this period, citizens may criticize government officials – essential in a constitutional democracy.

A more complicated question in the case is whether the town violated the First Amendment by ending the public comment period entirely.   Hoeppner contends that the town ended the public comment period just to shut him up.  The judge ordered the two sides to provide more information on multiple issues related to this claim.

Hoeppner may not win the case, but Judge Crabb’s ruling is instructive for city and town boards across the country: Officials can’t stop people from speaking just because officials don’t like what people have to say.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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