The right to free speech. How does the first amendment protect us? Can government restrict what we say, or when and how many times we say it? Winnebago County leaders are facing this issue and the outcome is uncertain.
Rockford resident Michael Castronovo claims county board members violated his free speech rights. This all started in 1993, when Castronovo says he obtained access rights to the driveway on his property. His home on Harrison Avenue is also his business. In May 2008, the median on Harrison Avenue was removed during construction, which allowed Castronovo for the first time to access his property from both east- and west-bound lanes of Harrison Avenue. In May 2009, a median was reinstalled which once again blocked his access. Starting in April 2009, Castronovo wanted to make sure he'd have access to both lane entrances even if a new median was constructed. He asked the county board to keep an opening in the median. By May, the board voted his resolution down.
"Everything went awry, and I felt that the way I was treated was improper and I started speaking about it, and what was described in the lawsuit is different censorships happened that I felt were invalid and against the Constitution and by 2011, I filed a lawsuit in federal court." -says Castronovo.
In a recent order, Judge Frederick Kapala somewhat agrees with pro se plaintiff Castronovo and somewhat agrees with the 13 defendants; Scott Christiansen, Wayve Vlk, Dave Fiduccia, Angie Goral, Kay Mullins, Dianne Parvin, Dave Tassoni, Joseph Vanderwerff, Pearl Hawks, Frank Gambino, Kyle Logan, Tom Owens, and Steve Schultz. The county board's lawyer asked for summary judgment on all of Castronovo's five alleged violations of free speech. The five are as follows,
"First, from April 2009 until December 2009, Castronovo spoke eight times before the Board, with six of those speeches involving the median or lane construction near his property and his objections to both. During that same timeframe, Castronovo was twice denied the right to speak before the Board by its Chairman, defendant Scott Christiansen, only July 9, 2009 and December 10, 2009.
Second, Castronovo alleges that the rest of the Board violated his free speech rights by failing to vote, on their own initiative, to reverse the Chairman's decision.
Third, Castronovo states, and Winnebago County denies, that the Chairman informed Castronovo prior to speaking in two speeches, in August 2009 and February 2011, that he could not mention Harrison Avenue or give specific people's names in his speech.
Fourth, in May 2009, Castronovo attended two meetings held by Winnebago County Public Works, a committee of the Board. At those meetings, where the committee considered and voted on his proposal to leave opening in the median to permit access to and from his property into the east-bound lane of Harrison Avenue, Castronovo was not permitted to speak. The committee did permit defendant Vanderwerff, the Winnebago County Engineer, to speak, however. Castronovo claims that many of the representations Vanderwerff made to the committee were false and went unrebutted because he was not permitted to speak.
Fifth, Castronovo asserts that in October 2009, a Cherry Valley Police Officer threatened Castronovo, allegedly at the behest of defendant Fiduccia who is one of the Board members... Fidducia denies instructing any police officer to threaten Castronovo."
Judge Kapala granted Winnebago County summary judgment on the first, second, and fifth claims. Castronovo can still appeal these claims post-trial.
The county has now filed a motion to alter and amend the court's order to explicitly specify which individual capacity and official capacity defendants remain in this lawsuit with respect to Castronovo's first, second, and third claims. Defendants also request the court to reconsider their summary judgment motion with respect to the fourth claim. The county says, in 2009, Winnebago County board meetings were not specifically designated as public forums either by state law or the County Board's own rules. Illinois law changed in 2011; the Open Meetings Act was amended, it now states that citizens cannot be kept from speaking at committee meetings.
Beginning in December 2012, Winnebago County Board members put a new procedure in place, stating all committee meetings must allow public comment, except the Zoning Committee. Public testimony is heard in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals in that case. At Thursday night's Winnebago County Board Finance Committee Meeting, Chairman Ted Biondo read, for the first time, the rules for public comment. Speakers are limited to three minutes, only five speakers per meeting, and citizens cannot discuss pending or threatened litigation, personnel matters, or zoning items. Castronovo says this is a good start.
"This is a response to Judge Kapala's interpretation of the Open Meetings Act and the amendments to the Open Meetings Act that came online in 2011. I think we have to be aware of the constant changing in the state of the law." -says Winnebago County Civil Bureau Deputy State's Attorney Dave Kurlinkus.
Both parties are back in court on March 13th. Then, Judge Kapala will decide on the county's requests for reconsideration and clarification. Depending on the outcome, a date could then be set for trial.
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