Cote cries ‘foul,’ ACLU weighs free speech suit

Posted 8/10/23

The ACLU of Rhode Island is weighing whether to represent Warwick activist Rob Cote in an action against the City Council for denying him his rights to the freedom of speech after being cut off by …

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Cote cries ‘foul,’ ACLU weighs free speech suit


The ACLU of Rhode Island is weighing whether to represent Warwick activist Rob Cote in an action against the City Council for denying him his rights to the freedom of speech after being cut off by Council President Pro Tempe Donna Travis and escorted by two police officers from Council Chambers.

The incident triggering Cote’s complaint occurred at the public comment portion of the July 17 meeting. Cote had signed up to speak and after reaching the podium held up a copy of the Providence Journal with a front age story on Travis and how she claimed to own an adjoining piece of property that some members of the Oakland Beach Real Estate Association had been improperly obtained. Cote congratulated Travis on the news coverage. She accused him of bringing up a personal issue to which he replied he was talking about government.

They faced off briefly before Travis had Cote escorted from the chambers.

Cote was outraged, saying his First Amendment rights had been trampled and he was going to bring the matter to the Rhode Island ACLU. He did, and in response to the Beacon, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said the complaint would be reviewed to determine if there are legal grounds to bring litigation. According to Cote, he and ACLU attorneys will meet Friday.

In an August 1 letter to City Council President Steve McAllister and council members, Brown writes, “We are deeply troubled by the actions taken against Mr. Cote that evening as we believe they are not only contrary to the letter and spirit of the Council’s public comment policy, but they raise serious First Amendment concerns. “

Brown goes on to recognized that the City Council’s public comment policy, Rule 41, requires speakers to limit their comments to issues “directly affecting city government,” but that Cote was cut off after two sentences  “and thus it was wholly premature for anybody to conclude that his comments violated the rule.”

Asked about the matter, City Council solicitor William Walsh pointed out that the council initiated the public comment provision and approved Rule 41. During public comment, council members do not respond to questions and the speaker is given no more than five minutes unless there are more than three speakers in which case the 15-minute segment is equally divided.

Had Travis not shut off Cote, the consensus among many who follow council meetings is that the matter would have gone unnoticed. Now, however, he has been given the ammunition to challenge the action and throw the incident into the media spotlight.

Cote was pleased to have the ACLU agree with him, but was disappointed by the conclusion of the letter that “the Council’s treatment of Mr. Cote at the last City Council meeting cannot be squared with its obligations to honor the robust commitment to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. We therefore call upon the Council to reassure the public that this type of response will not be repeated and that residents will be free to speak at future meetings on matters involving city government without fear of being silenced. “

Cote had hoped the ACLU would present him in bringing suit.

What Cote didn’t know is that the ACLU had sent him several emails.

“We had not heard from him and didn’t know if he was interested in pursuing it,” Brown said in a telephone call last Thursday.

Also reached Thursday, Cote said he didn’t receive the emails, but most definitely wants to bring legal action. Doing nothing would “embolden them if they (the ACLU) don’t take them to court.”

He suggested that Travis “better go to the library and learn about the constitution.”

On Monday Cote refrained from further comment until after the Friday meeting with the ACLU. On second thought, he added, “no member of the city council will ever shut me down again without ramifications.”

In an email response, City Council President Steve McAllister said , “As the Council President it is my job to run the meeting and adhere and enforce the council rules. The Warwick City Council will continue to welcome and encourage members of the public to participate and speak during council meeting.  There are a number of opportunities for members of the public to be heard on city issues including during rule 41 “public comments” or during committees where the public can speak about every item on the agenda.  As I have done since I have become Council President we will allow everyone to speak at the appropriate time and all council members and the public will follow the council rules. “

Cote, ACLU, compliant