Baton Rouge, mayor pro tem accused of violating 1st Amendment rights

By Elizabeth Alt | Dec 9, 2017

BATON ROUGE — Three prominent Louisiana community leaders kicked out of a public city council meeting in Baton Rouge earlier this year filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wilson on December 4, alleging their First Amendment rights were violated. 

Gary Chambers, Eugene Collins and Michael McClanahan were escorted from the May 10 Metropolitan Council meeting. They claim they were removed for speaking about Alton Sterling, who was shot and killed by police in a confrontation July 5, 2016.

"It is my hope that no one else has to witness clear discrimination in a building that belongs to us, by a person that we elected," Collins said in the suit. 

The plaintiffs are not suing for financial gain, but to ensure that every citizen be allowed their right to free speech during future meetings, according to the suit. 

William Most

"The message to Baton Rouge's Black community is clear," the lawsuit stated. "If you speak out on the streets, you will be removed and arrested. If you speak out on private property, you will be removed and arrested. And if you speak out in the Metro Council chamber, you will be removed and arrested."

Just one week before the council meeting, federal prosecutors announced there would be no charges filed against the officers involved in the Sterling shooting. The men allege that they were removed seconds after they mentioned anything about Sterling or police, violating their rights to free speech.

“They were there to express their view that Baton Rouge should not return to business-as-usual without first addressing the issue of Alton Sterling’s killing," William Most, lawyer for the three plaintiffs, recently told the Louisiana Record.

McClanahan, who is the local NAACP chapter president, began speaking about Sterling, and after telling him to speak about the topic at hand, Wilson ordered officers to escort McClanahan out.

Local community leader and blogger Chambers called out Wilson as he was escorted out of the meeting by officers, quoted on video as saying, “Scott Wilson, you are a coward for pulling people out of this meeting. They have a right to speak out.”  

Chambers was arrested, and it is still unknown whether the state Attorney General will prosecute. 

Collins, chair of the 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge and assistant pastor at Real Life Ministries, was also escorted out of the meeting seconds after attempting to speak about Sterling.

The lawsuit alleges that speakers at other meetings have spoken off-topic without reproach.

The plaintiffs, all black males, claim in the suit that their removal was an attempt to silence them based on their ideology and their race. Videos from the May 10 meeting show a poignant moment where a white female community member spoke at the podium on the same topics and was only removed when she pointed out that she was not being removed like the three black men before her only because of her race.

The city has not responded to the suit, although the council held a meeting on May 24 to discuss what happened at the May 10 meeting. The parish attorney confirmed in the meeting that a citizen "can oppose an item for any reason that they want" during public comment," Most said.

The men are seeking damages for court costs and attorney fees, but the main objective of their lawsuit is for the court to rule that Wilson’s behavior was illegal and ensure that in the future all people will be able to exercise their freedom of speech. 

The lawsuit speaks about the history of racism in Baton Rouge, stating: "Scott Wilson is part of a long history of Baton Rouge's government suppressing the voices of its Black citizens…Defendants discriminated against the content and viewpoint of Plaintiffs' speech by having Plaintiffs removed from the Metro Council chambers before their public comment time was up."

The men hope that this lawsuit will spark change, Most said.

“It is our hope that the city will acknowledge the constitutional violations and take concrete steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said. 

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