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Settlement Agreement Reached in ACLU Free Speech Lawsuit Against Tiverton School Committee

Posted: May 06, 2004|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the settlement of a lawsuit it filed against the Tiverton School Committee in 2002, challenging on free speech grounds a policy that barred members of the general public from orally initiating “charges” or “complaints” against school employees during the public comment portion of School Committee meetings. Under the settlement agreement dismissing the suit in light of revisions made to the policy, the school district agreed to pay $7,500 in attorneys fees to the ACLU lawyers in the case.

ACLU volunteer attorneys Jennifer Azevedo and Marc Gursky had filed the federal lawsuit against the policy on behalf of Tiverton resident and local teachers’ union vice president Gerald Arcouette, who had been prevented from speaking at a School Committee meeting after he began making comments about school district superintendent Robert Terrill, who had just been the subject of a “no confidence” vote by the teachers’ union. The ACLU lawsuit argued that the “public comment” policy violated Arcouette’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Two days after the ACLU filed the suit, the School Committee agreed to suspend enforcement of the policy.

In response to the lawsuit, the school district has repealed the challenged policy and adopted a new one. The ACLU has raised free speech concerns about that policy as well, which requires speakers to sign up nine days before a meeting in order to address the School Committee, and to refrain from making comments that, among other things, constitute a “breach of respect.” However, because no incidents of censorship have been brought to the ACLU’s attention since adoption of the new policy, the ACLU agreed that the current lawsuit was moot.

ACLU volunteer attorney Azevedo said today: “I’m very pleased with this outcome, as our lawsuit achieved what we had set out to do. We will be keeping a close watch on how the new policy is carried out in case similar problems arise.”

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