“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” begins a recent opinion and order out of an Ohio federal district court. Yet, the case in question involves exactly that: the arrest and detention of a Trumbull County commissioner after she criticized the county sheriff during a commission meeting.
Now the courts have weighed in, finding the commissioner’s arrest constituted a First Amendment violation. It’s another example of local officials seemingly failing to understand our most fundamental of constitutional freedoms.
Niki Frenchko is the only Republican commissioner on the three-member Trumbull County Board of Commissioners. As the ruling describes, the other commissioners “viewed her as ignorant of the basic workings of county government and a nuisance, to put it mildly.”
This personal enmity came to a head in July 2022. A month prior, during a commission meeting, Ms. Frenchko read into the record a letter detailing allegations of improper treatment of prisoners jailed in Trumbull County. Sometime thereafter, Sheriff Monroe wrote a response letter expressing displeasure with Ms. Frenchko’s accusations, suggesting the claims had not been verified.
In the July meeting another commissioner ordered the clerk to read the sheriff’s letter into the record, at which point Ms. Frenchko repeatedly interrupted the clerk and further criticized the sheriff. (Perhaps with some reason – according to the Cincinnati Inquirer, seven lawsuits alleging civil rights violations have been filed against the Trumbull County Jail in recent years.)
Soon after, two sheriff’s deputies arrested Ms. Frenchko for violating Section 2917.12 of the Ohio Revised Code, prohibiting any person “with purpose to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting,” from engaging in conduct that “obstructs or interferes” with the meeting or engaging in any speech that “outrages the sensibilities of the group.” Dwell on that phrase for a moment – since when does outraging the sensibilities of a group justify a restraint on political speech under the First Amendment? Although federal Judge Philip Calabrese found the statute in question to be content-neutral and neither overbroad nor vague, he did find the arrest to be retaliatory and a clear violation of Ms. Frenchko’s First Amendment rights. Judge Calabrese writes:
“Without question, the disruption that led to Commissioner Frenchko’s removal and arrest was her speech itself. And not just any speech. The speech of an elected official, delivered at a public meeting, addressing a matter of public concern. Speech that communicated a message disfavored by those in power. Speech highly critical of another elected official.”
Readers of this blog might remember a similar case in the San Antonio area in which personal animosity between elected officials led to the arrest of a 72-year old city council member on trumped charges. The Supreme Court is set to hear that case, Gonzalez v. Trevino, later this year.
If an elected official is obnoxious and overtalks her colleagues, a commission may be in the right to ask her to leave the meeting. But this commission overreached, punishing this elected official for her speech with handcuffs. This trend – weaponizing the law to punish disfavored speech – is troubling, but Judge Calabrese’s ruling in favor of Ms. Frenchko is a reminder that many courts are still willing to enforce respect for the First Amendment.