WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — What started as a war of words has now become a legal battle.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island announced it has filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island District Court against the Warwick City Council, accusing it of infringing upon resident Rob Cote’s First Amendment rights during a meeting last month.
Video from the July 17 meeting shows Cote walking up to the podium during public comment and pulling 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,” Cote said. “Another front page of the Providence Journal.”
Cote was planning to discuss a Providence Journal article about a property dispute involving Councilwoman Donna Travis, but he was stopped.
“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 added. “You get away with it every month. You’re not going to do it with me.”
In the video, Cote can be seen talking to the officer before being walked out of the room.
The lawsuit alleges Cote was not given enough time to establish what he was going to say, and he had a right to talk about his ethics concerns regarding Councilwoman Travis.
Attorneys representing Cote claim Travis also retaliated against their client because he had criticized her in the past.
The lawsuit suggests the other councilors should have stopped Travis.
City Council President McAllister was not in attendance that night, but is listed as defendant in the suit along with all other city council members.
McAllister told Target 12 he had no comment “on pending litigation.”
Travis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorneys representing Cote want the council to declare they were wrong in censoring Cote and allow him to say what he was going to say during the July 17 meeting.
The suit also calls for an award of monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.
“I am hopeful that Warwick elected and full-time employees come away from this situation with an understanding that, although they temporarily hold power, they should listen to and respect every one of their constituents – even the ones who criticize,” Cote said in a statement issued by the ACLU.
Earlier this month, the ACLU and the New England First Amendment Coalition put out a joint letter urging the city council not to make the same mistake again. NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told Target 12 at the time that Travis and the 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.