ACLU Charges that Battle Creek Mayor Stifles Free Speech

April 16, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, April 16, 1999

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today warned the mayor of Battle Creek in a letter that he violated the rights of two citizens when he stopped them from criticizing the city’s police chief at a recent City Commission meeting.

In the letter to Mayor Ted Dearing, ACLU cooperating attorney James N. Rodbard said that Dearing improperly prohibited Pastor Mary Gault and Robert Mitchell from speaking on the conduct of Police Chief Jeffrey Kruithoff at an April 6 meeting.

Gault and Mitchell have organized a citizens group that is investigating an alleged pattern of police abuses in Battle Creek. At the April meeting, Gault and Mitchell wanted to comment on a police detective’s sworn testimony in federal court that Kruithoff authorized an illegal wiretap on a subordinate to monitor him while Kruithoff was having a sexual affair with the subordinate’s wife.

The ACLU letter charges that Dearing’s refusal to allow Gault and Mitchell to speak violates the First Amendment and the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

Dearing said he prohibited the two from speaking because their comments would constitute “personal attacks” on Kruithoff and because the matter is under litigation. The ACLU maintains that the comments would speak to the performance of a public official and therefore are clearly constitutionally protected speech.

“It is distressing,” Rodbard said. “I quite frankly cannot imagine a forum that provides greater protection of the First Amendment rights of citizens than a meeting of the City Commission.”

Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the Michigan ACLU, concurred. “Citizens don’t lose their First Amendment rights when litigation in pending,” she said.

“When matters have taken such a serious turn, the need for information about potentially illegal and unprofessional conduct by police officers is even more important,” Moss added. “The public has a right to know and a right to speak about unlawful government actions.”

The ACLU is asking Dearing to reverse his policy of not allowing comments on the performance of Kruithoff at City Commission meetings and is threatening to take legal action to defend the rights of Gault and Mitchell if Dearing does not change the policy.

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