"I'm gonna talk over you. This gonna be one of those meetings ya'll never seen before," Monique Owens, Mayor of Eastpointe, Michigan, told one constituent during a September city council meeting.
Owens repeatedly attempted to shout down speakers during the meeting—even while other council members urged her to stop. For her behavior, she's now facing a lawsuit alleging that she violated constituents' First Amendment rights.
During a city council meeting on September 6th, 2022, Monique Owens frequently interrupted constituents who attempted to speak in favor of Harvey Curley—an Eastpoint Councilman with whom Owens has been engaged in an ongoing dispute. Despite being frequently warned by her fellow councilmembers—and being told by the city attorney that the speakers "have a right to address the city council or they may speak individually about a member of the council as well," Owens continued to shout down critical speakers.
"I also have my First Amendment right," Owens replied to the city attorney. "And if you saying something I don't like, as my First Amendment right, whether a mayor or not a mayor, I'm going to speak."
On November 9th, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a lawsuit on behalf of four speakers at Eastpointe City Council meetings. The lawsuit alleges that Owens and the city of Eastpointe violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights in two ways. First, the lawsuit claims that Owens violated plaintiffs' rights by shouting over them and preventing them from speaking directly.
"Mayor Owens frequently uses her authority . . . to suppress dissent and criticism by interrupting and shouting down members of the public who criticize her or raise subjects she finds personally embarrassing," wrote FIRE attorneys in the lawsuit. "Mayor Owens, however, allows members of the public to praise her and to criticize the other members of the City Council."
Secondly, the lawsuit alleges that Owens attempted to stop one plaintiff by invoking a city policy that requires that speakers "direct their comments to the Council as a body, not to an individual member of Council or the public." Not only is this rule unconstitutional—it is also enforced selectively. In March, Owens forced one plaintiff to change her remarks to remove criticism of Owens—yet at the previous meeting, Owens allowed a speaker to call her "beautiful" and "wonderful."
"City council meetings aren't safe spaces for elected officials," said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal said in a Thursday press release. "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."
Residents hope the lawsuit will send a strong message to the local politician on a massive ego trip. "I love Eastpointe. Eastpointe is my home," Mary Hall-Rayford, a plaintiff in the case, told FIRE. "But every resident should have the freedom to express their thoughts about what happens in their community."