Dickens prevails in 1st amendment lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A federal jury determined Tuesday that former Mayor E. Dana Dickens III did not violate a resident’s right to free speech by refusing to let him finish addressing the Suffolk City Council last February.

After less than 30 minutes of deliberation, the seven-woman, five-man panel found that the city lawmaker acted within his realm of authority when he ordered Leroy Schmidt, a frequent speaker at council meetings, to sit down without finishing his presentation.

Moments prior to Dickens’ action, Schmidt had criticized the mayor’s expense account and a $20,000 city allocation that Dickens received to pay a secretary who handled municipal business, according a video of the meeting.

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Schmidt brought up similar issues in December, when he implied that Dickens was pocketing the $20,000. After than meeting, Dickens advised Schmidt that he needed to make sure he based future comments on factual information.

Dickens testified Monday that he cut Schmidt’s comments short in February because Schmidt appeared to be heading toward the same allegations he made in the previous meeting.

On Tuesday, Dickens said he felt that justice had been served.

&uot;I think it was pretty clear that the evidence showed the decision made was the same one any reasonable person in the same circumstances would have made,&uot; Dickens said. &uot;It is important that local government officials have that flexibility in those decisions.&uot;

Schmidt has made changes in his demeanor during his council presentations, Dickens said. Consequently, he has spoken at numerous council meeting since February without incident.

&uot;That’s a benefit to him and the citizens of Suffolk,&uot; he said.

Stephen Merrill , Schmidt’s lawyer, is unsure whether his client will appeal the court’s decision.

Schmidt said the lawsuit’s outcome will not keep him from voicing his sometimes unpopular opinions at future city meetings.

&uot;I’m disappointed but I will continue to speak out,&uot; he said.