Winnebago County wins the legal battle against one man over freedom of speech. At least for now.
The case, tried in federal court, lasted three days, but it's based off of accusations from four years ago. The plaintiff, Rockford resident Mike Castronovo, sued Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen and former board member Pearl Hawks. Castronovo claims his 1st Amendment right to free speech was violated on three separate occasions. Jury members needed almost four hours Wednesday afternoon to decide.
"The jury came back and found no liability on behalf of either Mrs. Hawks or Chairman Christiansen." -says Winnebago County Deputy State's Attorney David Kurlinkus.
Castronovo says back in 2009, he was either not allowed to speak, or what he said was changed at two committee meetings and one full county board meeting. He believes this violated his right to free speech. Defendants argue, back then, committee meetings weren't traditional public forums. As for the full board meeting, the county says Castronovo was given his time to make public comment, but following board policy, he wasn't allowed to talk about individual county employees. Castronovo says he wanted to see changes made by winning this case.
"I was hoping to see the county open up more free speech and to back off to allow citizens more opportunity to give input to improve government, to make things better. We need that around here." -he explains.
Kurlinkus says policy changes are always a possibility.
"We always review things. The county board reviews things all the time. Every two years, with every election, the county board re-visits and sometimes changes or modifies rules and order of procedure. That's actually what governs the county board meetings."
After four years, two-and-a-half spent working through the court system, Castronovo is left with a loss.
"It's disappointing. I really believe that this was more of a tragedy for the citizens of Winnebago County than for me. I believe our free speech rights will not be easily restored at this point."
On the win, Kurlinkus says, "This is what the justice system is all about. Bringing a group of jurors together, listening to evidence, examining evidence, testimony and then coming up with a decision. That's what came here and we're very gratified they found things the way that we explained them."
Castronovo says from here, he'll decide if there's anything he can do next, needs to do next, or if this is a battle for someone else to take up in the future. He says he's undecided on filing an appeal. During the trial, his lawyer made a motion for a directed verdict, where instead of a jury, the judge applies law to decide if there's a 1st Amendment violation. Both sides are still waiting on the judge's ruling for that piece. After that's handed down, Castronovo will decide whether or not to appeal.
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