by Scott McClallen
Residents shouted down by a Michigan mayor during public comment in a Sept. 6 meeting have won a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit allowing them to speak freely.
Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens had claimed that residents’ criticism of her was akin to “assaulting” her. Video from the meeting 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.
In November, four residents – Mary Hall-Rayford, Karen Beltz, Karen Mouradjian, and Cynthia Federle – filed a federal lawsuit against Owens with help from The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that defends free speech.
On Wednesday, Eastpointe agreed to a stipulated preliminary injunction that prohibits Owens from shouting down criticism and shutting down discussions of topics she doesn’t like while the lawsuit proceeds. Those topics include Eastpointe’s mayor and City Council, disputes between Eastpointe’s mayor and City Council members, police matters, and other matters of public concern.
The order says the public may direct and express comment, criticism, or praise regarding public officials.
FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick welcomed the news.
“We’re pleased with the injunction,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “This order protects the First Amendment right of our plaintiffs and all Eastpointers to peacefully criticize Mayor Owens and other public officials while the lawsuit proceeds. The order also bars Mayor Owens and Eastpointe from prohibiting discussion of Mayor Owens’ disputes with other City Council members. The First Amendment does not permit the government to censor discussion of embarrassing stories or unpopular policies.”
The order is to remain in effect until the final disposition of litigation, or until further court order.
Hall-Rayford, a community activist, former chaplain, and school board member, also said the injunction benefits all who attend City Council meetings.
“The injunction benefits not only me and the other plaintiffs,” Hall-Rayford said in a statement. “It benefits everyone who comes to a City Council meeting and wants to become involved.”
Owens hasn’t responded to a request for comment. Her public mayor’s profile identifies her as a “trailblazer” and a former comedian.
“Her fight for social justice in creating equality across the board started in her work as a Wayne County Sheriff wanting to do more than enforce the law but create laws that would ensure a better quality for all,” her profile says.
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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.