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Library Board president, LCG sued by citizens over Constitutional issues

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Posted at 5:01 PM, Mar 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-08 14:06:19-05

The president of the Lafayette Public Library's governing board and Lafayette City-Parish Government have been sued by two citizens who claim the board is trying to silence viewpoints that board members don't agree with.

Many of the allegations in the suit center on a meeting that happened in January; to see our story about what happened click here. The citizens who filed the suit are Lynette Mejia and Melanie Brevis, co-founders of the groups Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship and Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship. During the January meeting, Brevis was removed while trying to make a comment.

If you'd like to read the suit for yourself, scroll down.

The suit, filed in federal court on Tuesday on behalf of two Lafayette Parish residents by the Tulane First Amendment Clinic, alleges that Judge's policies for board meetings "silence individual viewpoints disfavored by Board members and chill speech by members of the public. Members of the public are threatened with criminal prosecution for engaging in protected free speech, and Plaintiff Brevis was forcibly removed from a public meeting for her exercise of protected free speech. The policies governing public library board meetings are contrary to the Constitution and the Louisiana Open Meetings Law."

The suit alleges that the board's policies are overly broad, are content-based and that there's no legitimate government interest for the control of citizens' speech in this context.

"Plaintiffs challenge this intrusion onto their rights," the suit states.

The suit alleges that the board's policies - both as written and as implemented - violate both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Louisiana's Open Meetings laws. The plaintiffs are suing LCG as the supervising agency of the board. Judge is sued in both his official and personal capacities.

We reached to Judge and LCG for comment; LCG generally does not comment on pending legal matters, and a spokesperson said they couldn't comment on this suit. Judge responded that he cannot comment on a pending lawsuit.

The suit alleges that Judge's term as president of the board has been "fraught with controversy and community dissension pertaining to censorship of books and materials housed in the Lafayette Public Library System."

The suit lists several controversial situations, including the November 2021 attempt to remove a book from the library; the April 2022 attempt to remove a film from the library; and the July 2022 attempt to fire one of the librarians.

"Members of the public frequently attend the Library Board of Control meetings, and many speak out in opposition to Defendant Judge, Board policy proposals and attempts at censorship," the suit alleges, adding that Judge posted "an excised" version of the disturbing the peace law, La. R.S. 14:103, at board meetings to support his approach to controlling audience comments.

"The United States Supreme Court and Louisiana Supreme Court have prohibited or limited application of this statute’s language for more than 60 years," the suit states.

Two law enforcement officers are at every meeting, flanking the board and facing the public, the suit states.

"Since September 2022, prior to allowing public comment at each meeting, Defendant Judge issues a series of warnings to attendees. These warnings include advising the public that people will be removed if their speech is deemed violative of La. R.S. 14:103, without explaining what conduct or words will violate the statute," the suit states. "The warnings also instruct members of the public they will be removed if they use “confrontational” or “derogatory” speech or debate during the public comment portion. Defendant Judge does not define “confrontation” or “derogatory” or “debate.” The warnings also instruct members of the public that they will be removed if they mention Board members by name during the public comment portion of the meeting."

The suit states that Judge has "used these policies to engage in content discrimination and viewpoint discrimination."

The rules apply differently if you agree with Judge, the suit alleges.

"Despite these speech restrictions, Defendant Judge has allowed members of the public with whom he shares personal viewpoints to engage in speech that arguably falls within the proscribed categories. No speakers who engaged in speech that aligned with Defendant Judge’s own personal beliefs has been ejected from a public meeting," the suit states. "For example, Defendant Judge has permitted certain speakers to insinuate that members of the community opposing censorship are “grooming” children for sexualization. As further example, Defendant Judge has permitted multiple members of the public to praise him, by name, despite the policy of not “singling out” Board members by name."

The suit states in detail Brevis' version of what happened at the January meeting, and alleges that what happened to her is having a chilling effect on her speech and the speech of other citizens.

"Speech that is offensive, derisive, annoying, confrontational, or derogatory is protected by the United States Constitution. Speech addressed to public officials directly and by name is core political speech necessary to democratic governance and protected by the United States Constitution," the suit states. "The posting and threatened enforcement of the portion of the disturbing the peace statute facially prohibits and chills a large swath of protected speech. The limitations on speech imposed by formal announced policy at the meetings likewise sweep a substantial amount of protected speech within their ambit."

The plaintiffs ask the court to find the board's policies and practices violate the state Open Meetings Law and the U.S. Constitution and to order training for LCG and Judge to ensure future policies follow the law. They request punitive damages from Judge personally, and they want attorney fees and costs.

Here's the suit: