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ACLU, Alleging Free Speech Violations, Sues Coventry Fire District for Third Time

Posted: July 09, 2004|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island has today filed a federal lawsuit against Coventry Fire District Chief Stanley Mruk and District Auditor Conrad Burns, for violating the free speech rights of four Coventry firefighters at the District’s December 2003 annual financial meeting. This is the third time in two years that the ACLU has sued Mruk. The latest suit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Gary Berkowitz, is on behalf of Robert Carlow, James Perry, William Perry, and David Gorman.

According to the lawsuit, the four plaintiffs attended the December meeting for the express purpose of asking questions concerning the Fire District and firefighting practices. The Perrys and Gorman also brought video cameras in order to record the meeting. However, defendant Burns, as moderator of the meeting, announced that only members of the press could record the meeting. In addition, both Carlow and Gorman attempted to speak at the meeting, but were prevented from doing so. Gorman was actually ejected for allegedly “disrupting” the meeting by leaving his seat to purchase soda from a vending machine.

The lawsuit argues that these actions “have a chilling effect on the Plaintiffs’ future ability to speak at public meetings, and the same effect upon the general public.” The lawsuit seeks damages and a court order holding that the plaintiffs have the right to videotape public meetings of the District and to speak at the meetings.

The ACLU’s Berkowitz said today: “This lawsuit seeks to remedy but the latest in a long-running series of civil liberties violations by the Coventry Fire District. We can only hope that three’s a charm, and that this suit will be the last one needed to finally halt the district’s consistently questionable conduct.”

One of the ACLU’s other two pending suits against Chief Mruk challenges his actions in barring two firefighters from publicly expressing fire-department related concerns without first getting approval from the Chief. Plaintiff Carlow is a plaintiff in that case as well. The second lawsuit is a challenge to violations of the open records law by Mruk.

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