Speech dispute in court

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Did former Mayor E. Dana Dickens III violate a resident’s right to free speech when he refused to let him finish addressing the Suffolk City Council last February?

A federal jury will take up that question this morning, after attorneys for Dickens and Bennetts Creek resident Leroy W. Schmidt wrap up closing arguments in U.S. Eastern District Court in Norfolk.

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On Feb. 17, Dickens made Schmidt, a frequent council critic, end his public comments early after Schmidt brought up the mayor’s expense account and a $20,000 city allocation Dickens received to pay a secretary who handled municipal business, according a video of the meeting.

According to testimony, Schmidt, during a December meeting, brought up similar topics. In that meeting, Schmidt implied that Dickens was pocketing the money.

&uot;It’s wrong. It’s insulting to the taxpayers of this city,&uot; Schmidt told Dickens during the December meeting. &uot;That’s shady dealing and you ought to be reprimanded for it.&uot;

That night, Dickens allowed Schmidt to complete his comments. But the mayor advised Schmidt he needed to make sure future comments were based on accurate information.

On Monday, Schmidt admitted he was &uot;embarrassed&uot; by his actions at the December meeting and that he had taken the mayor’s advice to heart.

&uot;I made up my mind to change my attitude,&uot; Schmidt said. &uot;I felt like I tried to conform. I tried to speak on facts and I was humiliated,&uot; referring to Dicken’s action in February.

Dennis Godwin, another frequent speaker at council meetings and witness for Schmidt, testified that he told Schmidt that he had overstepped boundaries during the December meeting.

&uot;I reprimanded Leroy,&uot; Godwin said. &uot;I told him that the mayor…was perfectly right for calling him down, that he needed to put more focus into policy, not personality.&uot;

Dicken’s attorney, Robert McFarland, said his client’s actions in February were an effort to retain decorum at a public meeting.

&uot;There is no question that Mr. Schmidt had the right to speak at the meeting,&uot; McFarland said during opening arguments. He said Schmidt or any other speaker that brings up things that are &uot;irrelevant or out of order will be stopped.&uot;