Cleveland City Council amends strict public comment rules, settling federal Free Speech lawsuit

The Cleveland City Hall | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Cleveland City Council president cut off a speaker reading a list of campaign contributions from the president’s political action committee, which led to a federal lawsuit. When the suit was settled, new public comment rules were put into place.

Key Players

Chris Martin is a resident of Cleveland, a frequent speaker during public comment at city council meetings, and the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Blaine Griffin is president of the Cleveland City Council. A Democrat, he was elected to the council in 2017 and reelected in 2021.  

Further Details

The incident that sparked the lawsuit occurred on Sept. 25, 2023, on a night when multiple speakers were cut off during the public comment period of a Cleveland City Council meeting. Griffin warned beforehand that he would be “cutting mics for anyone that insults or impugns the character of any official in this body, whether it be the administration or Council.”

When one speaker began yelling at councilmembers and Mayor Justin Bibb, calling them “pompous” and “arrogant,” Griffin cut off the microphone.

When Martin came to the microphone and began reading a list of councilmembers who had received money from Griffin’s political action committee, the Council Leadership Fund. Griffin cut the mic again and accused Martin of violating the rules by calling out individual councilmembers by name. In response, Martin said, “Now I have questions about whether that prohibition on addressing individual council members is constitutional in the first place, but even if it is, I wasn’t doing it.” Martin said he was “addressing the body as a whole.”

The final speaker of the night was cut off for making derogatory statements about the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities. 

On Dec. 4, Martin sued the City Council and Griffin personally in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The suit alleged that no rule in the written policy regarding public comment prohibited insulting or impugning the reputation of a city official. 

The rules did prohibit addressing “individual council members or other persons,” “electioneering for any candidate or specific ballot issue,” “indecent or discriminatory language,” “endors[ing] or promot[ing] a product or service,” and “wear[ing] anything that promotes any candidate, campaign, issue, product or service.”

The suit claimed that these rules and Griffin’s unofficial policy against insulting city officials violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being “overbroad and unconstitutionally vague” while imposing “unconstitutional restrictions on the speech of Mr. Martin and others.” The suit also accused Griffin of personally violating Martin’s Free Speech rights by cutting off his microphone during the public comment period.

Outcome 

Council adopts new public comment rules

On Jan. 5, 2024, after court-ordered negotiations, the council and Martin agreed to a temporary restraining order that stopped the council from enforcing many of the rules governing public comments. 

On Jan. 22, the council approved new public comment rules to address some of the issues raised in the lawsuit. The new rules prohibit comments from being “frivolous or repetitive” and replace the restriction on “indecent and discriminatory language” with a ban on language that is “obscene or likely to produce imminent unlawful action.” The new rules also require speakers to address either the council president or whoever presides over the meeting, which replaces the restriction on addressing individual councilmembers. In addition, the rules no longer include restrictions on endorsing ballot measures or advertising products or services. 

When describing the revisions, Griffin stated, “With these proposed changes, council hopes to ensure an orderly and fair process that allows people to express themselves on matters of public interest.”

“These revised rules will be applied to all speakers in a manner that does not discriminate based on the identity of the speaker, content of speech, or viewpoint of the speaker,” he added.

Martin settles lawsuit

On Feb. 7, Martin agreed to settle the lawsuit. The settlement awarded Martin $500 and the city agreed to pay his legal fees.

In a statement to the Free Speech Project, Case Western Reserve University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, which represents Martin, wrote, “We’re pleased that the City agreed to judgment in Chris’s favor and that this lawsuit accomplished so much of what we set out to accomplish: protecting the public from unconstitutional policies and recovering damages for City Council’s violation of our client’s fundamental rights.”

“City Council’s new policy isn’t perfect but it is a clear improvement on the prior, clearly unconstitutional policy,” the statement said. “The real test will be how Council applies its new public comment policy in the future.”