Late yesterday afternoon, the ACLU of Southern California sued Orange County and its Board of Supervisors for violating disabled Vietnam Veteran William D. Fitzgerald’s right of freedom of speech for expressing his views and criticizing the Board and the way it conducts county business. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana.
At two separate open and public meetings of the Orange County Board of Supervisors (OCBOS), the Board silenced Fitzgerald and had him removed from the meeting because some of the Supervisors disagreed with the content of Fitzgerald’s statements which he made during the public participation portions of the meetings.
At one meeting, during his allotted three minutes, Fitzgerald spoke on behalf of Anaheim HOME, a group that works to protect homeowners’ rights, a majority of whom are elderly. He expressed his deep frustration over the property tax decisions of the County Appeals Board, believing their actions resulted in unjust taxes to homeowners.
When he compared the Clerk of the Board, who runs the appeals board, to a commander of a concentration camp for following the orders of her bosses, he was silenced and instructed to leave the podium by a sheriff’s deputy before his allotted time had expired. Supervisors John Moorlach and Janet Nguyen scolded Fitzgerald for being impolite, expressed their opinion that he lacked credibility, and told him they were in a position of authority over him.
Most recently, during the public hearing on redistricting, the Board similarly silenced Fitzgerald before his allotted three minutes were up because they disagreed with what he said.
"Mr. Fitzgerald proudly served 11 years in the U.S. Army Infantry,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the ACLU/SC’s Orange County Office. “He has two sons who have multiple deployments to Iraq, and his family continues to sacrifice in defense of the ideals that make this country great - including the right every American enjoys to speak freely and to voice their opinion to their elected officials. While every American enjoys these rights, certainly Mr. Fitzgerald has earned the right to be heard."
"This isn't about me,” said William Fitzgerald. “The people my organization represents have the right to have their voices heard, and they choose me to speak on their behalf. If we can't criticize our politicians when we disagree with what they are doing, then what is the point of open government?"
The OCBOS’s rules and speaker guidelines prohibit speech in open and public board meetings. It discriminates against speech on the basis of content or viewpoints and penalizes speech the board deems inappropriate. Regulating speech in this way is unconstitutional because it runs the risk of permitting official censorship.
Fitzgerald is now afraid of attending or speaking at these public meetings for fear of being silenced or arrested. The unconstitutional actions taken against Fitzgerald have sent a chilling message to the Orange County community that if they question their local government they can be punished.
The lawsuit seeks that the OCBOS rules and speaker guidelines be declared unconstitutional and prohibit the OCBOS from undertaking other acts to discourage free speech, and allow Fitzgerald to participate in the public meetings without fear of retaliation.