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April 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 08, 2005

Police watchdog threatens lawsuit Police watchdog threatens lawsuit (April 08, 2005)

He says mayor chilled his free speech during February meeting

by Bill D'Agostino

Aram James, a former public defender and a vocal critic of the Palo Alto Police Department, threatened to sue the city this week, alleging Mayor Jim Burch violated his right to free speech during a council meeting earlier this year.

During the Feb. 7 meeting, James spoke against the city's plan to charge the Human Relations Commission with hearing complaints against police officials and reviewing new department policies.

Burch, however, abruptly cut James off and accused him of verbally attacking City Manager Frank Benest. A heated exchange between the two men ensued.

After a brief break, Burch allowed James to speak uninterrupted. Meanwhile, two police officers were called into the room, at the request of Councilman Jack Morton.

In an April 4 letter to City Attorney Gary Baum, Tim James -- Aram James' brother and attorney -- wrote they are "prepared to seek relief from the courts if necessary, but would prefer to resolve this matter without litigation."

The attorney argues the mayor violated the U.S. and California constitutions and the state's open meeting law by stopping his brother from speaking. The mayor, he wrote, "chilled the future exercise of fundamental free-speech rights by Mr. James and any other member of the public who might wish to criticize the performance of the Palo Alto City Council."

Aram James is asking for an apology from the mayor, a new section of the City Council's protocols that reiterates the public has the right to criticize any public official's performance, and reimbursements for legal costs. The letter gives the city until the end of April to respond "to avoid unnecessary litigation."

Burch said he hadn't seen the letter but noted that other mayors had, in the past, interrupted other speakers who were being similarly "obstreperous" and "accusatory."

The mayor added that James eventually got to speak without interruption. "He was not denied the right to speak. In fact he was given more time to speak than anybody else that evening."

Asked if he would interrupt James again, Burch said: "I certainly would."

For his part, James said the fact he was given extra time is irrelevant, since he was already "chilled" and is now afraid he would be arrested if he spoke again before the council.

"It's no comfort that I was given the additional time in light of the fact that it was clear that it was the content he objected to," James said. "Criticism of government officials is what the First Amendment protects."

James also argued that if other residents used the same tone but praised city officials, Burch would not interrupt them. "This is a guy who has a real problem with things that people say that don't agree with his world view," James said.

According to the City Council's official protocols, the mayor has the right to enforce "decorum" at a council meeting. According to the city's municipal code, it is a misdemeanor for a speaker at a council meeting to disrupt a meeting or make threats "against any person or against public order and security."

However, Tim James, referring to a videotape of the meeting, argued his brother did neither.

Baum, the city attorney, also had not seen the letter and would not comment.

If James sues, he would be the second member of his family to do so this week. Last week, his fiancÚ's son, Jameel Douglas, sued the city. Lawyers for the Gunn High School student accused Police Officer Brad Kilpatrick of using unnecessary force while giving Douglas a ticket for skateboarding without a helmet in March 2004.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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