WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — It took less than a minute for Warwick City Councilwoman Donna Travis to call over a police officer to kick Rob Cote out of a recent meeting, and now she and the council are facing criticism from free speech organizations.
The confrontation happened at the beginning of the public comment portion of the July 17 meeting. Cote walked up to the podium and pulled out a newspaper.
“Just a little about some local politics and I have some official city documents I’d like to share, but first I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman Travis,” he said. “Another front page of the Providence Journal.”
Cote was planning to discuss a Providence Journal article about a property dispute involving Travis, but he didn’t get very far.
“You will be talking about city government, or you’ll be leaving,” Travis said.
The city councilor and Cote then exchanged a brief back-and-forth, during which Cote insisted he was there to talk about city government issues.
But it ended when Travis called over a police officer.
“OK, somebody want to take him out?” she asked.
“You know this is going to bring in the ACLU,” Cote said into the microphone before walking over to the approaching officer.
“He’s done,” Travis said. “You get away with it every month. You’re not going to do it with me.”
In the video of the City Council meeting, Cote can be seen talking to the officer before being walked out of the room.
Two weeks later, Cote still disagrees with Travis’ decision to kick him out, saying issues involving city councilors are government business.
“She clearly doesn’t understand that as an elected official, everything that you do is up to public scrutiny because of the fact that you’re a public figure and you’re an elected official,” Cote said in a one-on-one interview with Target 12.
Cote is now speaking with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island as he considers taking legal action.
Executive Director Steven Brown believes Cote has a legitimate First Amendment claim.
“If they have harsh words about a public official, they have the right to say them,” Brown told Target 12. “Obviously, they don’t have the right to disrupt the meeting, but that’s not what happened in looking at the video.”
While no lawsuit has been filed, the ACLU and the New England First Amendment Coalition put out a statement Wednesday condemning the City Council’s choice to remove Cote from public comment.
“The Council’s treatment of Mr. Cote at the last City Council meeting cannot be squared with its obligations to honor the robust commitment to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment,” the joint statement read. The organizations then urged the council not to make the same mistake again.
Target 12 reached out to Travis for an interview but did not hear back.
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told Target 12 that Travis and the City Council should apologize.
“Reassure the public moving forward that their rights to free speech and their ability to comment about matters of public interest and related to the City Council itself will be respected and protected,” Silverman said.
Both organizations said they have not heard from Travis or the City Council in response to their letter.