On June 8, 2022, Stephen Whitaker was addressing the Montpelier City Council during the public comment period. Mr. Whitaker was informed that his two-minute speaking time had expired; he continued to speak and was asked to leave. Mr. Whitaker refused. After he had finished speaking and sat down, Montpelier police forcibly removed Mr. Whitaker and placed him under arrest for disturbing an assembly and unlawful trespass, among other charges.
In an amicus brief on January 5, 2023, ACLU of Vermont urged the dismissal of criminal charges against Mr. Whitaker, asserting that he cannot be held criminally liable for this constitutionally protected First Amendment activity. Charges against Stephen Whitaker were dropped by Washington County State’s Attorney Michelle Donnelly in February 2023.
Mr. Whitaker was commenting on issues of public concern in a forum that exists for precisely that purpose – affording constituents a chance to engage with local officials and ensuring government accountability. The fact that he minimally went over his allotted two minutes does not mean he was ‘disturbing’ the assembly or ‘trespassing’ in city hall, and it should not have resulted in criminal liability.
Participation in town meetings is fundamentally about the right to assemble, to speak freely, and to petition the government: freedoms at the core of the First Amendment’s democratic vision. Like all Vermonters, Mr. Whitaker has the right to attend and participate in public meetings in his community, even if local officials find his criticism unhelpful or disparaging. Criminally prosecuting a resident for extended public comments undermines the central purpose of public meetings and offends democratic values.