Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wentzville Settles With Woman Removed From Meeting After Disagreeing with Mayor

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 6:15 PM

In February 2018, Sally Hunt was forcibly removed from a Board of Aldermen meeting in Wentzille, Missouri, after speaking critically of its newly erected, sixteen-foot-long sign proclaiming "IN GOD WE TRUST."

A Maryland Heights resident, Hunt didn't exceed the allotted time given to members of the public. She didn't get rowdy. But when Mayor Nick Guccione interrupted her remarks to argue with her, she refused to concede his point — and he ordered her removed from the room. Two cops assisted in hustling her to the lobby, one grabbing her arm to make sure she obeyed.

Now Wentzville — a suburb of St. Louis, located about 40 miles west of the city — is settling a lawsuit alleging it violated Hunt's First Amendment rights. It's paying the fees of her ACLU attorneys (about $2,500), and also putting new policies in place to see that members of the public will not be censored for their beliefs.

Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri, says the settlement is "everything we asked for, and more." The St. Charles County municipality has agreed to pass and read aloud a resolution affirming its commitment to the First Amendment, and in applying its code in an even-handed way. It will acknowledge that all religious traditions are welcome to participate in its government.

And, finally, it will ensure that its police officers are trained in citizens' legal rights — which include the right to dissent with municipal policy or disagree with the mayor.

"The police will be trained only to interfere if there is probable cause someone has committed a crime — not just because the mayor says so," Rothert says.

Rothert stresses that the municipality never had cause to remove Hunt. "The mayor seemed perturbed by my client's message," he says. "We views the sign as pontificating, pharisaic — and she said so. The mayor can disagree with that, but he can't use the power of his office to silence her."

In a prepared statement, Hunt expressed satisfaction with the settlement.

“I am pleased that no one else will be forcefully removed from a public meeting when they speak up about the government’s apparent endorsement of religion,” Hunt said. “No one should face retaliation because they shared their opinion in a public forum.”

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