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Cleveland resident whose microphone was cut during public comment sues City Council

Cleveland resident Chris Martin speaks into a microphone at Cleveland City Council.
Cleveland City Council
Cleveland resident Chris Martin's microphone was cut while he delivered a public comment in September listing the names of council members who have accepted funds from a political action committee.

A man whose microphone was cut during a Cleveland City Council public comment session in September has sued Council over what he calls "unconstitutional" rules.

Cleveland resident Chris Martin was reading the names of council members who accepted money from a political action group at a Sept. 25, 2023, public comment period when he was cut off. Council President Blaine Griffin said Martin violated council rules by “impugning the character of council members.”

Martin was one of several people whose comments were cut short that night, sparking concerns over First Amendment compliance. Council points to its rules posted online, which ban "indecent or discriminatory language" and addressing council members individually.

The First Amendment Clinic at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, which is representing Martin in the lawsuit filed Monday, said those rules are unconstitutional and inconsistently enforced.

"Really, the longer this unconstitutional policy remained on the books and City Council apparently refused to work with us on revisions to the policy, our client felt the need to file this lawsuit," said the clinic's Director Andy Geronimo.

Two men in suits sit at a long table as other people sit and stand along the wall in a Cleveland City Council meeting room.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
Resident Chris Martin stands near the door at a Cleveland City Council caucus meeting on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. He was among several residents attending the meeting where potential public comment rule changes were discussed. Martin's microphone was cut in September 2023 during a City Council public comment period after he named specific council members who received funding from a political action committee.

Geronimo points to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says if a government body allows a public forum, citizens must be guaranteed full First Amendment rights.

Since taking Martin as a client, Geronimo said the clinic has made numerous attempts to reach out to council to discuss revisions to the rules, with no response.

"We didn’t think it needed to become the civil rights lawsuit it’s become," Geronimo said. "But at this point, the city can either reach out to us and try to discuss a potential resolution of this, or they can proceed with the litigation."

Cleveland City Council declined to comment for this story.

The lawsuit comes as council mulls a rules change that would further restrict public comment. In a November meeting, Griffin presented a draft of procedure changes as council deals with "security concerns" in council chambers after Pro-Palestinian speakers filled public comment for several weeks, sometimes disrupting the meeting with chanting.

Geronimo said that the suit only addresses the current rules, but the clinic will assess the changes if they are approved.

Akron City Council recently tightened its own rules, which now limit the number of speakers at public comment and prohibit signs and banners. Those rules are already in place in Cleveland, which first approved public comment in 2021.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.