Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens has a problem with criticism.
During the public-comment period of a September city council meeting, Owens berated and censored three constituents, insisting that Eastpointe residents have no First Amendment right to directly criticize her — throwing a temper tantrum that ultimately derailed the entire meeting.
In June, Owens was involved in a dispute with a fellow councilmember. She claims 85-year-old Councilman Harvey Curley assaulted her at a community car parade, which he denies. Eastpointe police declined to arrest Curley and prosecutors did not file charges. Eastpointers wanted to weigh in on the scandal involving their elected officials, but Owens would not let them.
Eastpointe’s city attorney pushed back, correctly explaining that “members of the public have a right to address the city council” and “may speak individually about a member of the council as well.” He added, “Anybody has a free rein of topics they can discuss, and if they want to address a particular member of this council with criticism, they are allowed to do that. It is part of their First Amendment rights.”
But Owens didn’t listen. She continued to shout down and cut off her critics. Now, FIRE is handing Eastpointers the mic, suing to protect their First Amendment rights.
Members of the public have both a constitutional right and a civic duty to debate and discuss how their government is performing.
The right to criticize the government is the bedrock principle of First Amendment law. For over 200 years, Americans have understood the unique danger posed by public officers who attempt to regulate public sentiment. A democracy requires citizens to pointedly critique government officials — to test the soundness of their policies and the mettle of their leadership.
That is why political speech, specifically, lies at the heart of the First Amendment, where its protection is “at its zenith,” as the Supreme Court observed in Meyer v. Grant (1988). The First Amendment’s absolute, unequivocal defense of core political speech is so “axiomatic,” or self-evident, that government actors’ flagrant attempts to regulate that speech based on its content shocks the conscience. That’s what happened in Eastpointe.
Public officials must have thick skin when encountering inevitable criticism. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court explained that “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp” personal attacks come with occupying a government office. Sharp and personal critiques are not unpleasant side-effects of democracy — they’re prerequisites. Democratic governance depends on the free exchange of thoughts, including public denunciation of individual officeholders. As the Court made clear in Sullivan, preserving the marketplace of ideas requires society to uphold its “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”
A city council invites public comment for a reason: to hear the public’s feedback. In Michigan, public-comment periods are classified as limited public forums. Unlike a traditional public forum, a limited public forum allows the government to regulate certain features of speech, including content, if the restrictions are viewpoint-neutral and reasonable considering the forum’s purpose. The government may, for example, require that public comments are durationally limited, topically relevant, and profanity-free. So long as these restrictions are reasonable, they pass constitutional muster. But if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the people’s right to criticize their elected officials during a public-comment period of a city council meeting.
Members of the public have both a constitutional right and a civic duty to debate and discuss how their government is performing. That’s what four Eastpointe residents tried to do by criticizing their mayor. But the mayor shouted them down because she didn’t like what they had to say.
On Nov. 9, 2022, FIRE filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor Monique Owens and the City of Eastpointe, seeking an injunction to stop the mayor’s censorship and allow criticism of her during the Eastpointe City Council’s public-comment period. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” might be a good lesson for a first grader, but the First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing that rule on its citizens.