by Scott McClallen
When Eastpointe residents criticized Mayor Monique Owens in a Sept. 6 city council meeting, she claimed the residents were “assaulting” her.
Now, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that defends free speech, filed a federal lawsuit accusing Owens of “abuse of authority.”
Video shows Owens repeatedly interrupting and silencing constituents at the podium expressing support for Councilman Harvey Curley, who has been involved in an ongoing dispute with Owens.
Mary Hall-Rayford, a community activist, former chaplain, and school board member who attempted to speak at the meeting, said that residents have a “right to complain.”
“We have a right to complain about people who aren’t doing their job that they’re elected to do,” Hall-Rayford said in a phone interview with The Center Square. “If you don’t like criticism, you shouldn’t have gotten involved in politics.”
Hall-Rayford said she moved to Eastpointe in 2012 and attended local meetings in 2019 to become more involved with the community.
“I love Eastpointe. Eastpointe is my home,” Hall-Rayford said in a statement. “But every resident should have the freedom to express their thoughts about what happens in their community. Mayor Owens may not want to hear our feedback, but we have the right to speak up. Change doesn’t happen when people sit quietly.”
The lawsuit challenges a city policy prohibiting the public from directing comments at an individual member during the public-comment segment of council meetings.
Owens follows that rule, depending if the comments are negative or positive, the lawsuit says. At another meeting, Owens’ allowed a supporter to describe her as “beautiful” and “wonderful” uninterrupted.
“Mayor Owens frequently uses her authority as Presiding Officer of Eastpointe’s City Council to suppress dissent and criticism by interrupting and shouting down members of the public who criticize her or raise subjects she finds personally embarrassing,” the lawsuit says.
Owens was elected mayor of Eastpointe in 2019. Owens hasn’t responded to The Center Square’s request for comment by publication.
Owens shouted at Eastpointe resident Karen Beltz – a retired teacher, grandmother, and 40-year resident of Eastpointe who had never before spoken at a city council meeting – “You’re not going to sit here and assault me, lady I never met!”
The lawsuit says that Owens ignored the advice of Eastpointe’s city attorney that members of the public have “free rein” to discuss topics during their three minutes of public comment.
The lawsuit says that Owens also shouted down another resident, Karen Mouradjian, who tried to criticize the mayor’s treatment of Hall-Rayford and Beltz.
Owens told Mouradjian, who usually discusses animal welfare issues, that Mouradjian may “talk about your cats and dogs in the community, but you won’t talk about me.”
FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick said that the First Amendment protects criticism.
“This is Michigan, not Moscow,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “Public officials are elected to serve the people, not silence them. The First Amendment prohibits the government from requiring citizens to offer praise in order to be heard. FIRE is suing Owens to ensure that she no longer censors Eastpointers or tries to protect herself at the expense of the Constitution.”
FIRE’s lawsuit seeks to hold Owens accountable for viewpoint discrimination and violating citizens’ constitutional rights, as well as to prevent her from censoring criticism.
“City council meetings aren’t safe spaces for elected officials,” FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal said in a statement. “They’re opportunities for politicians to get honest feedback from the public. FIRE will make sure that Owens and other mayors tempted to abuse their authority get the message that the First Amendment trumps their ego.”
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.
Photo “Monique Owens” by Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens. Background Photo “Courtroom” by 12019.