PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of two Blawnox Borough residents, Melina Brajovic and Peggy Albright, who experienced repeated harassment - and even arrest - at the hands of borough officials after the two began questioning actions of the borough council and posting videos of its public meetings on YouTube.
"The Blawnox Borough Council is trying to bully these government watchdogs into silence," said Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. "Fortunately, the First Amendment and the Sunshine Act protect the public's ability to hold their local officials accountable."
Blawnox Borough holds two meetings per month, an "agenda" meeting and a "business" meeting. Both are open to the public and involve council members making decisions. Under the Sunshine Act, any municipal council meeting involving deliberations has to allow time for public comments.
On October 13, 2008, Ms. Albright attempted to raise a question about an accident at a local gas station at an agenda meeting, but Council President Samuel McNaughton and Borough Mayor Thomas Smith told her she was not allowed to address the council. When Ms. Albright objected, she was handcuffed, arrested and charged with two misdemeanors: disrupting meetings and disorderly conduct. The Allegheny Court of Common Pleas dismissed the charges in September 2009 and ordered her record to be expunged. The district attorney filed an appeal to Superior Court, which upheld the Common Pleas Court's decision in June 2010.
In December 2009, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a guest column criticizing the Allegheny County District Attorney for pursuing criminal charges against Ms. Albright and praising the court's decision in her case. Mayor Smith submitted a response to the column, which was also published. Blawnox Borough included a copy of Mayor Smith's article in the water bill that was mailed to all Blawnox residents in January.
On January 4, 2010, Ms. Albright attended another council meeting, at which she objected to Mr. McNaughton's appointment as president because he has a home in Florida. Mr. McNaughton responded by threatening legal action and saying loudly he did not want to hear any more questions about his residency or Ms. Albright would "pay the consequences." A friend of Ms. Albright, Melina Brajovic, videotaped the meeting and posted it on YouTube.
The borough council unanimously approved new rules restricting the public's right to video- and audio-tape its meetings at its next meeting. Among other restrictions, the rules required people wishing to record the meeting to sign a log-in sheet and sit in a designated corner of the council chambers - in this case a spot blocked off from the rest of the room by cardboard.
At the June 14, 2010, agenda meeting, Council President McNaughton and Ms. Brajovic argued over the validity of the sign-in rules for videotaping. Ms. Brajovic had signed in as "Thomas Jefferson" in protest of the rules. Mr. McNaughton ordered her to turn off the camera, and when she refused, he began screaming at her, saying "You aren't even born in this country. You can't even speak English."
Mr. McNaughton threatened to have Ms. Brajovic arrested and a police officer was called. She agreed to leave, fearing arrest.
Ms. Brajovic, who emigrated from Yugoslavia in 1985 and became a US citizen in 1991, said she is fighting the council's efforts to prevent her from recording its meetings because she does not want to "lose the freedom that I immigrated to the United States for."
"You probably wouldn't be surprised at all if a citizen of a totalitarian regime overseas faced being hauled away in handcuffs for standing up and speaking out to a public official at a public meeting, or for videotaping the same public meeting without turning over, in advance, and in writing, their name and address," said Frederick Goldsmith of Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, who is also representing the plaintiffs. "You should be very surprised, and outraged, though, to learn this is exactly what's happening, not overseas, but right here in western Pennsylvania, right now, to fellow U.S. citizens."
The suit alleges that the borough violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and the First and Fourth Amendment rights of Ms. Albright and Ms. Brajovic and asks for an injunction preventing the Blawnox Borough Council from enforcing its policies barring public comment at agenda meetings and requiring people to sign in to record meetings and to sit in a designated area of the room while recording.
The case is Brajovic v. Borough of Blawnox and was filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak and Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Goldsmith of the law firm Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC.