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Cleveland City Council, resident settle lawsuit over public comment

A bald man in a rose-colored shirt and cardigan wears a face mask as a person behind him holds up a sign reading, "Stand on the right side of history."
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland resident Chris Martin attends City Council's Jan. 22, 2024, meeting at which new rules for public comment were adopted. After his microphone was cut off during a public comment period, Martin filed a lawsuit against council in December 2023 arguing its rules were unconstitutional.

A legal battle between Cleveland City Council and a resident is wrapping up after the parties reached a settlement agreement Wednesday.

The lawsuit between resident Chris Martin and the city council stemmed from an incident during a city council meeting in September when Council President Blaine Griffin cut Martin's microphoneafter Martin criticized council members by name during the public comment period.

At the time, council members pointed to the rules that barred public commenters from directly addressing council members.

Those rules violated Martin's constitutional rights, said Martin's attorney Andy Geronimo, the executive director of Case Western Reserve University's First Amendment Law Clinic.

“Criticism of government, like petitioning government for redress of grievances is directly in the First Amendment,” Geronimo told Ideastream after the September meeting. “They’re not obligated to maintain this forum, but once they do, they can’t say you’re not allowed to criticize us in this forum.”

City Council recently approved new policies that scrapped the rules that barred public commenters from directly addressing council members and using discriminatory language, citing Free Speech rights.

The new rules are better, said Martin, who added he still has concerns that they give the council president too much discretion in deciding what is and isn’t acceptable within public comment.

"City Council’s new rules also underscore the council’s belief that we, the public, must be held accountable to them rather than them being held accountable to us," he said.

Martin also said council does not clearly lay out policies and rules for speaking at committee meetings, where legislative details are hashed out before going to the Monday night council meetings for approval. Public comment is allowed in those meetings at the discretion of the committee chair.

The judgment does not admit any liability or damages suffered. The city will pay Martin $500, as well as legal fees that are still being determined.

Cleveland City Council declined to comment for this story.

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