The Metro Council tried to silence black voices when Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wilson removed several speakers from a May meeting, a lawsuit filed Monday alleges.
Three of the people who were led out of the chambers by police that day have sued the city of Baton Rouge and Wilson, who they contend violated their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs are not seeking damages other than court costs and attorney fees; rather, they want the court to rule that Wilson behaved illegally, which they hope will compel the council to elect a new pro tem to lead meetings.
Wilson and parish attorney Lea Anne Batson declined to comment on the suit Monday afternoon. At the time of the incident, Wilson indicated the speakers were removed from the meeting because they spoke off-topic rather than addressing the issue at hand.
Gary Chambers, Mike McClanahan and Eugene Collins filed suit Monday morning in the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge over events related to the May 10 Metro Council meeting.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs contend "the Baton Rouge government should not return to business-as-usual without first resolving how to respond to the killing of a member of the community by BRPD officers."
The suit argues that speakers at other meetings have been afforded the opportunity to wander off-topic without reprisal. The plaintiffs, who are black, view their removal as an attempt to silence them based on their ideology and their race.
"Scott Wilson is part of a long history of Baton Rouge's government suppressing the voices of its Black citizens," the suit alleges. "Defendants discriminated against the content and viewpoint of Plaintiffs' speech by having Plaintiffs removed from the Metro Council chambers before their public comment time was up."
The meeting in question occurred one week after federal prosecutors decided not to pursue a civil rights case against officers involved in the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling last year.
A "shut down the Metro Council" protest was publicized ahead of the meeting.
When the council opened the floor for public comment on items concerning sewer backups, McClanahan, president of the local NAACP chapter, approached the podium. Wilson told him to speak to the topic at hand. When McClanahan began to discuss the Sterling shooting, Wilson swiftly ordered officers to lead him out, as members of the public chanted "no justice, no peace!"
Chambers came up next and was quickly escorted out.
"Alton Sterling was murdered on July the fifth. Scott Wilson, you are a coward for pulling people out of this meeting. They have a right to speak out," Chambers said as he was led away.
Wilson ultimately had the sergeant at arms remove six people, saying they had to address the topic at hand.
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At the next meeting, Batson told council members the public has a right to speak "on any item included in the agenda" per the city-parish ordinance. State law allows the removal of any people who "willfully disrupt a meeting to the extent that orderly conduct of the meeting is seriously compromised."
It's going to be a tough case, predicted First Amendment attorney Scott Sternberg, who also works as a lawyer for The Advocate.
"This is an interesting one. … I think there's a really good argument on both sides," he said.
On one hand, it's "incredibly hard to justify" discrimination based on someone's views, and a person can oppose an agenda item for any reason, Sternberg said. On the other hand, the government can expect to hold orderly meetings where speakers' comments are germane to the discussion.
"What does germane mean? That's the problem," he continued.
The overarching concern will be whether Baton Rouge is providing its residents a way to bring complaints to their elected officials in public and on the record.
The Metro Council does not currently include a general comment period, which could be a potential solution, Sternberg said.
McClanahan said he wants people to feel able to go to the government with their concerns without fear. Chambers said that if Wilson is removing people because he doesn't want to hear what they have to say, he should lose his position.
"If he is discriminating, he should not be the person leading the meetings," Chambers said.
"I don't think Scott or anyone else gets to decide why someone supports or opposes an item."