FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 5, 2023
Contact: Stephanie Gomory, [email protected], 802-223-6304 x111
MONTPELIER, Vt. – In an amicus brief filed yesterday, the ACLU of Vermont urges the dismissal of criminal charges against Montpelier resident Stephen Whitaker, who was arrested after exceeding the allotted two minutes for making public comments at a Montpelier City Council meeting in June 2022. The ACLU’s brief asserts that Mr. Whitaker cannot be held criminally liable for this constitutionally protected First Amendment activity.
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Harrison Stark: “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.”
On June 8, 2022, Mr. Whitaker—who regularly attends Montpelier City Council meetings to speak on matters of public concern—was addressing the 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.
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Hillary Rich: “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. That’s not how our democracy works.”
Mr. Whitaker’s case is one of several examples in recent years of Vermont residents being unlawfully barred from public spaces by local officials. In 2019, the ACLU resolved a lawsuit against the City of Burlington on behalf of Jason Ploof after he received a “no trespass” order forbidding him from visiting City Hall Park; the case settled after the city agreed to make policy changes consistent with the First Amendment. In 2012, the ACLU sued on behalf of Marcel Cyr, who was banned from attending local school board meetings; a federal court ultimately agreed the ban violated Cyr’s free speech and due process rights.
A copy of the ACLU’s amicus brief is available here.