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The Buzz 12/22/11

FREE SPEECH STANDOFF Holding his ground at the public lectern, Father Nathan Monk chanced an arrest during the December 15 Pensacola City Council meeting. Two members of the council walked out of the chambers in protest as police officers were summoned to remove Monk.

“Using the police has a chilling effect on people’s constitutional rights,” said Councilwoman Sheri Myers, as she stepped out of City Hall and into a mild December evening.

Myers, and Councilman John Jerralds, took issue with new Council President Sam Hall’s quick trigger finger when it comes to cutting off public comment. A few days earlier, Hall had several members of the public silenced or removed from a Committee of the Whole meeting after he found their speech to be unpalatable or drifting off a given topic.

Monk was addressing Hall’s earlier actions when the council president gave the go-ahead for police officers to remove him.

“I thought it was embarrassing what happened at the Monday meeting,” Monk had told the council. “If someone wants to connect the dots about the poverty they have and a loan that’s being taken out, they have a right to connect those dots.”
At the earlier meeting, Hall had a woman removed after she began contrasting a $5 million loan the city is seeking to fund its natural gas ventures with a proposed ordinance that sought to outlaw sleeping on city property and using items—ranging from tents to pieces of newspaper—to keep warm. Citizens also drew parallels between the proposed ordinance and the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”

“To throw someone out, that’s a shame, that’s embarrassing,” Monk told Hall, arguing that people should have the opportunity to address their government officials about any given matter during the public comment periods. “—whether they connect dots to Hitler, to George Wallace, to Barney.”

Hall then told Monk his time was up.

“I have a minute and 12 seconds,” Monk corrected him.

“I’m ruling you out of order,” Hall said.

Monk protested, saying he still had time on the clock. His previous argument—lobbying for people’s right to speak during the meeting—had suddenly become much more three-dimensional.

“I’m not leaving this podium,” Monk said, standing motionless as Police Chief Chip Simmons and another officer surrounded him. “I have 59 seconds left.”

After a tense moment—during which Myers and Jerralds walked out—Monk turned and left the gallery. Outside City Hall, he laid blame squarely at Hall’s feet.

“This has never happened until he’s been the council president,” he said. “Since he’s been the president of the council, all free speech has been limited.”

While Hall later conceded that “perhaps I was hasty,” the council president maintained that he was simply enforcing procedural rules. He also defended his actions at the earlier meeting, arguing that he “drew a line” when council members were “yelled at, subjected to insults, challenged in our faith, and compared to Hitler and the Third Reich.”

“I am a firm believer in the right of free speech and freedom of expression, but I believe that free speech does not mean unrestricted speech,” Hall said in a statement.

During the Committee of the Whole meeting, council members took offense when speakers compared the proposed ordinance to the Nazi’s societal engineering and pointed out seasonal ironies, namely that Jesus Christ and his parents would have been found in violation of such an ordinance had they not ducked into a manger for the birth of the Savior.

Since the December 15 blow-up, there have been public calls for the council president to apologize to Monk. That seems unlikely, as Hall feels “it is my job to protect order and decorum…”

Meanwhile, the local free-speech conversation—born out of the city’s back-and-forth drama with Occupy Pensacola—is finding a wider audience beyond municipal boarders. As of press time, a video from the council meeting posted on YouTube has been viewed more than 80,000 times.

“You don’t have the right to determine what type of speech people are going to have when they are addressing their government for a redress of grievances,” Monk tells city council members in the online video.

MACK ATTACK Former Pensacola city councilwoman Diane Mack filed a complaint alleging criminal conduct after Mayor Ashton Hayward doled out bonuses to city workers. Mack did not feel the mayor had the authority to issue the bonuses.

The State Attorney’s Office, however, disagreed.

The State Attorney’s office found that “the Charter for the City of Pensacola provides that the Mayor has the power to exercise the executive powers of the City and to supervise all departments including, but not limited to, the power to appoint, discipline, and remove all officers and employees,” City Administrator Bill Reynolds told Pensacola City Council members about the state finding, and also criticized Mack’s efforts.

“That really is a little bit beyond the pale,” Reynolds said.

The employee-bonus issue is yet another chapter in an ongoing storyline: determining who holds what authority under the city’s new strong-mayor form of government. Council President Sam Hall said that the matter may best be decided in a courtroom.

“It may be that we have to get the courts to figure that out,” he told his fellow board members.

LASHBROOK ATTORNEY RESPONDS TO HAITI SUIT Keith Lashbrook’s attorney is certain his client is innocent of accusations stemming from the Haitian orphanage the missionary oversaw. As the IN reported last week, children from the facility—and their state-side adoptive parents—have made claims of physical and sexual abuse, and have filed a lawsuit against Pensacola-based Globe International Ministries.

“We’re about ready to file a defamation case,” said Ken Brooks, a Milton-based attorney.

Although Lashbrook has no suit filed against him, the missionary is a central figure in the suit against Globe. The organization worked in conjunction with Lashbrook Family Ministries to run the Haitian orphanage.

Since leaving the facility, adoptive children have alleged that they were abused by members of the staff, including Lashbrook. Attorneys for both Globe and Lashbrook dispute those claims.

“These people are not the monsters they’re being made out to be,” Brooks said.

Lashbrook’s attorney said that Globe was being pursued because of the perception of its “deep pockets.” He also said that there would soon be a defamation suit filed against “several of the parents.”

Like Globe’s attorney, Brooks also distanced his client from Vance Cherry, Lashbrook’s former brother-in-law who was also accused of abuse.

“No, no, no,” Brooks said. “Vance Cherry’s a whole different ballgame.”

DON’T ROCK THE VOTE The American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote are among a list of parties signed on to a suit contesting the constitutionality of new voter registration rules on the books in Florida.

The suit alleges that HB 1355, passed earlier this year, places burdensome restrictions on voter registration. The law, it argues, places “unreasonably tight deadlines” on volunteers registering voters and issues “heavy penalties for even the slightest delay or mistake.”

Rock the Vote has completely pulled out of Florida.

“Under these new laws we can’t continue to work there any longer,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote.

The lawsuit argues the state’s new rules violate the Voter Registration Act. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has raised questions about Florida, specifically. Smith called the legislation “really quite intimidating and risky.”

“When they try to stop that, we have to fight back,” Smith said. “I believe that is the very core of what it means to be a democracy.”