NEFAC, ACLU of Rhode Island Denounce Removal of Speaker at Warwick City Council Meeting

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 |


The New England First Amendment Coalition and the ACLU of Rhode Island called on the Warwick City Council to recognize the public’s freedom of speech after a resident was recently escorted out of an open meeting by police.

During the public comment period of the Council’s July 17 meeting, Warwick resident Robert Cote was barred from speaking and escorted out of the meeting because he sought to comment on a Providence Journal article involving Council Vice President Donna Travis. The article detailed allegations against Travis about her role in a controversial acquisition of land from the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association.

In ordering Cote’s removal from the meeting, Travis cited the Council’s public comment policy which requires speakers to limit their remarks to issues “directly affecting city government.”

“Claims that a municipal official may have engaged in ethically questionable conduct indisputably implicate city governance,” NEFAC and the ACLU wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to the Council. “It is clearly a topic of public concern, and Mr. Cote should have had the opportunity to speak about it. Escorting him out of the meeting based on the content and viewpoint of his anticipated remarks is antithetical to the whole goal of allowing public comment.”

In a recent Warwick Beacon article, Travis suggested another reason for preventing Cote from speaking. She was quoted as stating it was the unwritten practice of the Council not to allow “personal attacks” during the public comment period.

As NEFAC and the ACLU explained, however, “any such policy itself is just as problematic from a First Amendment standpoint. In fact, courts have often struck down such restrictions as a violation of the public’s free speech rights.”

The organizations are demanding the Council reassure the public that this type of response will not be repeated and that residents will be free to speak at future meetings on matters involving city government without fear of being silenced.

NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. All coalition briefs, advocacy letters and statements can be found here.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Leadership Circle donors include the Rhode Island Foundation, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Boston University, the Academy of New England Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, Genie Gannett for the First Amendment Museum, Linda Pizzuti Henry, the Champa Charitable Foundation Fund and Connecticut Public.