An online petition launched by former Warwick City Councilman Bob Cushman is calling on citizens to oppose a resolution that would prohibit signs in Council Chambers. Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis docketed the resolution at the closing of the Sept. 19 meeting.
“I made the petition based on the fact that the council proposed a legislation that’s a violation of a citizen’s free speech,” said Cushman. “I thought it was important to let as many people know as possible. It sends a message to the council and the mayor so they can see that people don’t support it.”
A link to the petition, “Warwick City Council: Honor Citizens’ Constitutional Rights to Interact with City Leaders,” was sent to Car Tax Revolt supporters on Saturday afternoon by Warwick resident Rob Cote, who initiated the rally more than two months ago.
As of Wednesday evening, 82 people signed the petition, which can be found at change.org. Cote said the goal is to reach 200 signatures, as he disagrees with the proposed resolution.
“This is a direct hit on our First Amendment Rights,” he said. “For a councilperson to suggest this type of legislation is really like a middle finger in the face. It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to do whatever we want to shut you up.’ People are not going to stand for that.”
Cote said what he finds interesting about the petition is that people from states throughout the country, including Rhode Island, have signed it. He said they received signatures from citizens in Connecticut, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and California.
“The council crossed the line and they’re going to get heat from all over the country, which is why such a stern letter, in my opinion, was sent to the mayor from the ACLU,” Cote said.
On Oct. 3, Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to Cote, Mayor Scott Avedisian and Warwick City Clerk Marie Ahlert, advising the mayor and the council not to adopt the ban of signs in Council Chambers.
Brown wrote, “With respect, we cannot understand how the peaceful display of a sign detracts from either the decorum or deliberations of the Council. To the contrary, we believe such displays represent a core exercise of free speech rights that strengthens the democratic process as it is represented by the meetings of elected public bodies.”
Brown noted that while the ACLU recognizes the council’s right to diffuse inappropriate behavior at meetings, they believe the presence of signs vastly contrasts a citizen speaking out of order, interrupting others or creating a commotion.
“The mere display of signs is not only non-disruptive, but allowing audience members to express their views in that fashion may actually reduce disruption as well as the number of people who feel the need to speak out at a meeting,” Brown said in the letter. “Of course, City Council members may sometimes disagree with the message being imparted by a sign, but the same is true with the verbal comments made by some residents during the public comments period. Yet, disapproval of the content of their comments would hardly serve as a reason to ban them from speaking.”
He also noted that other problems would follow upon passage of the resolution.
“If approved, this resolution would bar City Council members, municipal administrators and members of the public from presenting charts or other graphic information to elucidate points while speaking before the council,” he wrote. “For example, displaying to the Council a spread sheet from a PowerPoint presentation that shows changes in a city budget line item would be out of order…We believe that the government can, even if not the intent, inappropriately stifle residents’ speech as much by tying their hands as by gagging their mouths.”
Travis, who read the letter, agrees that people are within their rights to have signs in Council Chambers. However, she said they should conduct themselves with respect and consideration to others. She didn’t find it appropriate that a member of the rally was carrying his sign around Council Chambers as William DePasquale, director of the Planning Department, was addressing the council in regards to three zoning amendments.
“I understand freedom of speech and I’ve been involved with demonstrations myself,” said Travis. “I have no problem if people have signs as long as they do it with respect and in a manner that will not be a distraction. But, one gentleman was walking around with a sign when people were talking. He was standing behind the director with the sign and it was a distraction. Those were important issues and they were showing no respect for the director. People can still read the sign if you’re holding it but there’s no need to be walking all over the place. People don’t usually walk on the council floor during a meeting. I know they were frustrated with the prior meetings but it was wrong. One time, he walked right by someone who was speaking. Even the fire chief had to tell him to get out of the aisle.”
At the Oct. 12 council meeting, Travis plans to alter the language of the resolution. She feels she should have drafted it differently.
“I will make the correction the proper way on the council floor,” said Travis. “I’d like to word it as, ‘signs are welcome as long as people do it in a proper manner that will not interrupt the council meeting.’ The intent is to have a better-controlled council meeting.”
Travis also said she did not take the sign to heart, as it depicted Avedisian as the “puppet master” of the City Council.
“I’m sure people think I was offended by it but that’s not the situation,” Travis said. “I don’t care if the sign was about me or Mickey Mouse, as long as people don’t block the view of other people or distract whoever is speaking.”
But Cote said he thinks the resolution, as well as a special meeting Avedisian called for on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. at City Hall, are attempts to stifle him and the other members of the rally. He does not plan on attending the meeting.
“They’ve orchestrated techniques to try to keep people quiet so we can’t ask difficult questions,” said Cote. “Myself and the supporters of the car tax revolt are definitely not going to stand for that. People are really aggravated. It’s ridiculous. If the mayor were to schedule this after the public hearing, I would be the first one to come out and support it. But, doing this before the public hearing is yet another example of how he wishes to control the dialogue. He had the opportunity to answer questions two weeks ago and he let it go because he wasn’t in control of the dialogue. This is damage control on the highest level and the lion’s share of car tax protesters want nothing to do with it because they see right through the smokescreen.”
Avedisian said Cote informed his office that he is unable to attend Saturday’s meeting. Nevertheless, Avedisian and his staff are looking forward to the meeting, as he said they want to answer questions posed by the public.
“We hope that people who have questions will attend,” he said. “The intent is to take questions and also have an opportunity to get individual answers from staff of the assessor’s and collector’s offices.”
“We all want the answers,” Travis said. “I think people forget that we are taxpayers, too, and it’s an inconvenience for everybody. But, I’ll be there Saturday.”
Avedisian said he would not be at the Oct. 12 council meeting.
“As the council meeting is on Wednesday and not the normal Monday, I am unable to attend due to a long scheduled commitment,” said Avedisian. “However, we will have people from all of the necessary departments present to answer any and all questions. We are also having a meeting next week with senior citizens to discuss the car tax and I’m hopeful that a planned meeting with the Chamber of Commerce about the car tax will occur next week.”