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 fought back with the help of the ACLU of Missouri. In a lawsuit filed in April, they alleged 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 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 had a point.
And now they have a settlement that is essentially a victory for their side. According to the ACLU, the city of Wentzville has “updated its city code and publicly committed to respect freedom of speech and the separation of church and state” as part of a newly adopted resolution.
“I am pleased that no one else will be forcefully removed from a public meeting when they speak up about the government’s apparent endorsement of religion,” said Sally Hunt, lawsuit plaintiff. “No one should face retaliation because they shared their opinion in a public forum.”
“The right to disagree with public officials without fear of intimidation or retribution is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy,” said Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director. “We are pleased that the city of Wentzville will protect the First Amendments rights of people who engage with local government.”
You can read the official resolution here.
The police will also be told to independently assess whether a citizen needs to be removed from a meeting instead of taking orders from a thin-skinned mayor. In addition to the resolution, the taxpayers of Wentzville will have to pay the ACLU $2,500 in attorneys’ fees. That’s the price for electing a mayor who doesn’t understand the First Amendment.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sally Hunt for her courage in speaking up against an injustice even though a mayor didn’t want to hear it. She knew the rules. She knew she was on the right side of the issue. And she knew when the city had gone too far.
She told me last night:
While I ideally wish we could have gotten them to remove that awful, huge, discriminatory, and First Amendment-violating “IN GOD WE TRUST” sign, at least they will now be more careful about protecting the free speech rights of everyone equally, regardless of belief or non-belief.
And I am thrilled that their police officers will be trained in citizens’ legal rights, which includes the right to dissent — even when your dissenting opinion is for the separation of church and state!
Officials in Wentzville were wrong to kick her out. Now they should continue listening to her and remove the religious phrasing from their meeting room.
(Screenshot via Facebook. Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)