“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Over the years, the US Supreme Court has defined the word “Congress” as used here to mean any government entity – state, city, township, city council or even a community board.
What happened on the evening of July 11, 2007 was that at a Community Board #5 meeting, during the “Public Forum” period, Christina Wilkinson signed up to speak for the three-minute public forum. The public forum is a free speech period that enables citizens to petition the government for redress of grievances. On this particular evening, the grievance was the destruction of nearly 200 trees – each nearly 150 or more years old – on the St. Saviour's property.
Christina read her statement from prepared text. The initial portion – the bulk – of the statement described the destruction. The last two or three sentences made reference to the disgraced city council member Dennis Gallagher as the initiator of the destruction of the trees to spite those who wanted the land converted to a park.
She started this statement, “We don’t need an investigation or a trial to determine if Dennis Gallagher is a rapist. It’s obvious that Councilman Gallagher rapes every one of his constituents on a daily basis by selling out our community and our history to developers.” At the mention of the word “rape” associated with Gallagher, the board members erupted into chaos. As one writer described the scene: “the barnyard animals were braying, howling, stomping their feet and pounding the tables.” Vincent Arcuri, the Community Board Chairman, pulled the microphone away from Christina, preventing her from completing her statement, and, by doing so, prevented interested listeners from hearing her statement.
Mr. Arcuri made no effort at all to honor the oath of office that he took to “protect and defend the constitution” upon becoming Chair of CB5. He swore to protect and defend the entire constitution. The oath did not include any promise to protect the members of the organization or members of the community from hearing and addressing harsh issues. Certainly, the oath never includes any promise to protect and defend any elected officials or the organization itself.
Sitting silently, doing nothing to honor his own oath of office was Gary Giordano, CB5’s District Manager. Upon being contacted several days later, Mr. Giordano said that he had no time to spend on this “unimportant” matter. But, he did explain that what Christina had said was “the most offensive thing I’ve heard in all my 18 years associated with this Community Board.” What particular part was so offensive? Mr. Giordano repeated the comment and said that that was all he had to say.
Mr. Arcuri made himself available for an interview with a local weekly whose publisher, Walter Sanchez, is the First Vice Chairman of CB5. Mr. Arcuri said that he was reacting to words that “could have been construed the wrong way, upsetting people”. Mr. Arcuri said that he would not condone personal attacks. He said: “personal attacks shouldn’t be made in a public hearing.”
The treasurer of the Community Board, Kathy Masi – in the same article – said that she “supported Arcuri’s judgment.” Masi said further: “I am very proud to work with a chairman who has the ability to recognize the difference between freedom of speech and blatant defamation and hatred…Vinny should be commended for protecting CB5 from participating in supporting anyone who would use our public forum as a platform for their own personal agenda.”
The local weekly newspaper is published in Maspeth. Apart from the routine misspelling, grammar and punctuation errors, as well as legitimate questions regarding its circulation claims, we find it very strange that the “reporter” who collected the quotes from Arcuri and Masi was unable to contact the woman whose speech was censored. This weekly paper knew Christina’s name because it reported it in a front page article (that contained a photo whose caption spelled the word “trees” as “tress” – an indication of inattention to detail). Is it possible that this publisher believes he owes a greater debt to Gallagher than to the readers?
The most astonishing part of this episode is that the publisher, CB5 First Vice Chairman, Walter Sanchez, uses the First Amendment for his own purposes in order to sell his tripe, but participated in trashing another citizen’s free speech rights. Unexplainable.
All of this is very revealing. Revelation: the members not only violated their oath of office, they don’t even understand it. Is the oath just a bunch of words that are the ticket to being a member? Revelation: the public forum is, indeed, a platform for the speaker’s own personal agenda. In this particular case the stated, and actually, very public, agenda was to advocate for redress for the willful destruction of trees, and to assign responsibility to the elected official responsible for that destruction – Gallagher.
Free speech for the redress of grievances – the very essence of the first amendment!
Christina’s speech was political, the most protected form of free speech. That is something that should be known to all members of any community board.
On August 16th, we asked both Mr. Arcuri and Mr. Giordano why they chose to censor her remarks. Both of them repeatedly stated that they were correct to deny Christina’s free speech rights because the NY City Corporation Counsel’s office established the rules and gave the CB officers the right to “interpret” those rules, even to the extent of censoring unwanted speech.
“Copies of these rules will be given to all persons wishing to speak at the public forum session before the Board.” These rules were definitely not given to those who signed up to speak. Mr. Arcuri and Mr. Giordano both agreed that the rules were not even on the table at the July 11th meeting.
We researched the origin of these rules. The Corporation Counsel states that they did not and do not formulate such rules. In short, the NY City Corporation Counsel is the city’s defense attorney. It does not form, manage, supervise or regulate Community Board meetings.
The New York State Department of State’s Committee for Open Government regulates public meetings. The Open Meetings Law concerns the public's right to attend meetings of public bodies. Both of these statutes are based upon a presumption of access.
Another of CB5’s rules, Rule “I”, requires that written material may be distributed only “with permission of the Board, or of the Chairperson with the consent of the Board, and shall be done in such a manner as to not interfere with the conduct of the meeting.” With that rule in mind, why was Dennis Gallagher allowed to personally distribute a letter on City Council letterhead that contained a vitriolic personal attack on a Community Board member and officer of a community civic association? He was not only not given permission to do so, he didn’t bother to ask for permission, and neither the Chairman nor the District Manager protested his failure to adhere to that rule.
The principle of the Open Meeting Law public forum is that “If the door is open, it is open all the way”. The regular folks among us would call this simply “fair play”. No law degree is required to recognize and exercise fair play. We all pretty much learned that in the sandbox.
Why did Mr. Arcuri and Mr. Giordano deny Christina her free speech rights but give Gallagher a pass when he openly violated the rules? This seems to be just a little arbitrary and capricious. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Mr. Arcuri had been meeting behind closed doors with the owner of St. Saviour’s and Gallagher to work out a deal?
The behavior of the members, officers and district manager that evening create grave doubt as to their fitness for the duties of the offices to which they were appointed, and for honoring their oaths.
Community Boards are designed to be a forum for citizen participation in deciding policies that govern local, community interests.
Apparently, though, chairing or managing a public meeting is so much easier when the officers can trash their oath, the law, and the constitution with utter abandon.
They must believe that taxpayers are expecting them to protect elected officials from criticism. Whom do they really represent – the citizens of their community, or elected officials?