Back in February, atheist activist Sally Hunt attended a meeting of the Board of Aldermen in Wentzville, Missouri to criticize the “In God We Trust” sign they had in giant letters in their meeting room.
You can hear her speech in that video. It’s direct, but it’s calm. Hunt explained the history of the phrase, why it excluded non-religious people in the community, and how others have complained about it to her but said nothing publicly out of fear of possible backlash.
Mayor Nick Guccione didn’t hear that last part since he essentially dismissed her for being a lone voice of dissent on this matter. When Hunt tried explaining once against that she was speaking on behalf of many others, he told her that her time was up and she needed to sit down before he called for her removal. More specifically, he said her five minutes were up even though she only spoke for 4:35.
Even though Hunt sat back down, Guccione asked cops to remove her from the room anyway.
In addition to all that, Guccione said after she was out of the room that he took action because she lived in a different city… even though there’s no rule that says people from different cities can’t go through proper channels to speak at their meetings, and even though Hunt said she was representing plenty of people in the community. Guccione also blocked her on Facebook for that same reason. And later, during a television interview, he rationalized kicking Hunt out of the room because he believed she would be disruptive.
Hunt is now fighting back with the help of the ACLU of Missouri. In a lawsuit filed yesterday, they allege that the City of Wentzville denied her First Amendment rights by cutting her speech short (even though she followed every rule they had) because of what she was saying. In other words, if she was arguing against how the city manages snow plowing with the same tone and energy, she wouldn’t have been cut off or kicked out.
The silencing of Plaintiff and her removal from the meeting was a violation of Plaintiff’s constitutional rights…
The actions of Mayor Guccione would deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising their constitutional rights.
The ACLU of Missouri said what happened to Hunt was a form of intimidation:
“The right to disagree with public officials without retribution is at the heart of a thriving democracy,” said Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri Legal Director. “Just because a public official does not like what someone says about his decision give him the right to intimidate someone or censor constitutionally protected speech.”
They have a point.
The one thing I wanted to know was whether an apology would’ve prevented this lawsuit. Or, if Guccione apologizes now, would they consider dropping the case?
It’s possible that Hunt and the ACLU would’ve gone a different route if Guccione acknowledged his mistake and pledged to never do it again. It’s not like he would’ve had to agree with her stance to do those things. But that didn’t happen. Furthermore, his subsequent interviews have shown him doubling down on his actions. He’s not repentant. He’s proud of what he did.
You can also see in the video above that the woman who speaks after Hunt, and supports the “In God We Trust” sign gets extra time to speak. That’s not a coincidence.
Hunt told me last night: “Mayor Guccione demonstrated clear favoritism/preferential treatment for Christians/theists and clear discrimination against atheists. There need to be consequences for this oppressive treatment.”
We’ll find out soon enough if a judge agrees.
(Screenshot via Facebook. Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)