Trial to be Set for Free Speech Lawsuit with Implications for Local Government Meetings

The two sides in a settlement conference on a federal lawsuit regarding public input at public meetings were deemed “too far apart” to come to terms, so it is expected a trial date will be set at a conference hearing June 21.

Two allegations from Count II of the suit, having to do with possible Freedom of Speech violations made by Winnebago County and some county officials, have survived a Motion of Summary Judgment. They are as follows (PDF):

Winnebago County’s motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, Count II remains as to the allegations that defendants violated Castronovo’s free speech rights by refusing to permit him to speak at the public works committee meetings and to the allegations that the Board Chairman instructed Castronovo that he could not speak before the Board as a whole if he were to name names in his speech.

If the Court finds that the chair did instruct Mike “C” Castronovo not to name names, it would constitute a content restriction, which is a First Amendment no-no. As for the allegation that the county did not permit his input at all during some meetings, the judge noted that the public works committee meetings are already covered by the state’s Open Meetings Act and as such must permit public comment during their meetings except under the exemptions for closed sessions.

Here, both parties argue extensively concerning whether the public works committee meetings were designated public forums or nonpublic forums, however neither addresses the Illinois law that controls the issue. Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, county committees qualify as “public bodies.”…None of the exceptions at subsection (c) [the rules for closed sessions (PDF)] apply to the public works committee of the Board. Under the Act, part of being an open meeting is the requirement that “[a]ny person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.” 5 ILCS 120/2.06. Defendants have not directed this court to, nor has this court found on its own, any set of rules purporting to govern what class of speakers are restricted from speaking at committee meetings. Therefore, the law requires that the committee meeting is a designated public forum for any member of the public who wishes to address the public body.

The Winnebago County committee meetings used to operate under the same rules that DeKalb’s Committee of the Whole meetings do: input only from council, staff and specially invited guests.

Winnebago County has since changed its rules to include public input at committee meetings.

Meanwhile, the City of DeKalb’s silence on the issue suggests it will wait to be sued separately (see Section 2.06 here).