DETROIT, Nov. 10, 2022 — “Mom, What’s a Mayor?”
Monique Owens, mayor of Eastpointe, Mich., recently published a children’s book with that question as its title. Judging by Owens’ behavior at recent city council meetings, a mayor is someone who is above criticism, who can shout down constituents whose views she does not like, and who doesn’t have to adhere to the First Amendment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a federal lawsuit late Wednesday that will remind Owens that a mayor takes an oath to defend the Constitution, not herself. FIRE is representing four Eastpointe citizens who sued Owens and the city of Eastpointe, Mich., to protect the rights of all Eastpointers to peacefully criticize government officials.
Owens was elected mayor of Eastpointe, a suburb of Detroit, in 2019. At a Sept. 6, 2022, city council meeting, Owens abused her power as the presiding officer by shouting down and suppressing criticism of her while the floor was open for public comments.
A video of the meeting shows Owens repeatedly interrupting and silencing two constituents who stood at the podium to express their support for Councilman Harvey Curley, who has been involved in an ongoing dispute with the mayor.
“I love Eastpointe. Eastpointe is my home,” said Mary Hall-Rayford, a community activist, former chaplain, and school board member who attempted to speak at the meeting. “But every resident should have the freedom to express their thoughts about what happens in their community. Mayor Owens may not want to hear our feedback, but we have the right to speak up. Change doesn’t happen when people sit quietly.”
Owens claimed that discussion of her dispute with Curley would “re-victimize” her, and bellowed at Eastpointe resident Karen Beltz — a retired teacher, grandmother, and 40-year resident of Eastpointe who had never before spoken at a city council meeting — “You’re not going to sit here and assault me, lady I never met!”
Owens ignored the advice of Eastpointe’s city attorney who reminded her that, under the First Amendment, members of the public have “free rein” to discuss whatever topics they choose during their three-minute, public-comment period.
When a third Eastpointer, Karen Mouradjian, tried to criticize the mayor’s treatment of Hall-Rayford and Beltz, Owens shouted her down, too. Owens yelled at Mouradjian, who usually discusses animal welfare issues at city council meetings, saying that Mouradjian could “talk about your cats and dogs in the community, but you won’t talk about me.”
This wasn’t Owens’ first time suppressing criticism. In March, she forced Eastpointe resident Cindy Federle to alter her remarks to omit criticism of the mayor — Owens herself — and reframing it as criticism of “the council” or “the body.” Owens claimed, based on a city council policy FIRE is challenging, it is inappropriate to “direct” a comment at a particular individual. But at the prior meeting, Owens allowed a supporter to describe her as “beautiful” and “wonderful” uninterrupted.
It is unconstitutional for a mayor to suppress peaceful criticism in a public meeting. FIRE’s lawsuit seeks to hold Owens accountable for viewpoint discrimination and for violating citizens’ constitutional rights, as well as to prevent her from censoring criticism going forward.
“This is Michigan, not Moscow,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. “Public officials are elected to serve the people, not silence them. The First Amendment prohibits the government from requiring citizens to offer praise in order to be heard. FIRE is suing Owens to ensure that she no longer censors Eastpointers or tries to protect herself at the expense of the Constitution.”
Today’s suit also challenges the unconstitutional city council policy prohibiting the public from directing comments at an individual member during the public-comment segment of council meetings.
“City council meetings aren’t safe spaces for elected officials,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “They’re opportunities for politicians to get honest feedback from the public. FIRE will make sure that Owens and other mayors tempted to abuse their authority get the message that the First Amendment trumps their ego.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com