Council to fight free speech suit

Roxana Hegeman

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) – A Mulvane woman who claims the city violated her free speech rights at a city council forum will get the opportunity to make her case in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot has refused to toss out the lawsuit brought by Jacque Farnsworth against the city of Mulvane, located about 25 miles south of Wichita in south-central Kansas. The case goes to trial Tuesday in Wichita.

Farnsworth contends in her lawsuit that the city censored speakers who opposed a casino project. She is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that espouses the defense of “traditional family values” and other conservative issues.

“We hope it sets the precedent that town officials must respect all viewpoints when they are giving access to people to a public forum, to the community,” said Joel Oster, an attorney with Alliance Defense Fund in Leawood, Kan. “They cannot discriminate based upon one person’s views.”

In her complaint, Farnsworth alleges that during a Jan. 16, 2008, city council meeting Mulvane Mayor James Ford found her comments about the casino taking money out of the local economy to be out of order.

The mayor told her the council was only taking questions at that time about the project, and that Farnsworth was addressing a social issue over which the casino had no control, according to the court documents.

When Farnsworth persisted in her comments, she was escorted out of the public meeting by two police officers.

Her federal lawsuit also alleges that at a March 13, 2008, public forum speakers who spoke out in favor of the idea of a casino near Mulvane were allowed to speak freely while those who opposed the project were interrupted and held “out of order.” The lawsuit alleges the city was censoring speech based on content and viewpoint.

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction keeping the city from censoring speech during the public comment period of council meetings.

The Alliance Defense Fund took on the case because of its interest in “religious liberties” which include free speech in a public forum, Oster said.

“We believe that in this case she was denied her right to access a public forum because her speech also related to the social ills of gambling,” Oster said.

Mulvane tried unsuccessfully to get the lawsuit dismissed before trial, saying it had no intention of discriminating against people with particular viewpoints on the casino. It said residents were allowed to speak freely at several other meetings.

The city’s attorney, Charles Millsap, did not immediately return a message left Monday for comment at his office.

Mulvane contends it has a right to take reasonable steps to prevent disruption of its meetings, and has an interest in conserving time and giving others the opportunity to speak. It argued the short questions section of the meeting was not intended to provide for indiscriminate speech and was intended to be more restrictive than the hours-long public comments section.

“Emotions surrounding the casino issue on all sides were high, and it was very important to the City that the meeting be conducted in as civil, orderly and efficient a manner as possible,” the city said in court documents.

The city also argued that during the public comments section of the meeting numerous residents were allowed to give speeches without interruption expressing views in opposition to the casino. It also cited other city meetings on the casinos in which persons freely expressed their opinion.