Legality of proposed ordinance questioned
Price fields questions during television interview-after boards’ attempt to pass ‘malicious communication’ ordinance.
Sep. 21, 2015 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
Plymouth Michigan News
A proposed “malicious communications” ordinance in Plymouth Township is no more than an attempt to silence political activists and critics of the current administration, according to a growing group of residents who characterize the ordinance itself as “malicious.”
The legality of the proposed rules was also challenged by the director of the American Civil Liberties Union and State Rep. Kurt Heise, among others.
The proposed ordinance failed on a first reading last week by a 3-3 vote of the members of the board of trustees. Supporting the new rules, which would make it a misdemeanor to send electronic communications which threaten, intimidate, harass or annoy the recipients, were Supervisor Shannon Price, Treasurer Ron Edwards and Clerk Nancy Conzelman. Opposing votes were cast by trustees Chuck Curmi, Bob Doroshewtiz and Mike Kelly.
Trustee Kay Arnold was absent from the meeting.
Residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting were adamant that the ordinance was a deliberate attempt to silence critics of elected township officials. Many local civic activist groups have websites on which residents post information and comments about board actions. Residents strongly questioned the motives of the board members and accused them of an effort to silence critics. Price however, characterized the proposed ordinance as an effort to help stop bullying by use of the internet or social media in schools. He introduced the new ordinance with a video of six teens who had been bullied and subsequently committed suicide.
Sandra Groth, a former township employee, told the board members they should work on cleaning up the real bullying which “takes place right here in Plymouth Township” before seeking to silence critics. Another audience member, Doreen Sharpe, identified herself as an employee of the Plymouth Canton School District who works at Discovery Middle School. She told the board members that bullying, while it exists, was being effectively handled by the schools without legislative involvement at the municipal level.
Heise, a Plymouth Township resident, is also an attorney with more than 20 years experience and currently serves as chairman of the Michigan House Criminal Justice Committee. Following the meeting, he said that he was very disturbed by the proposed ordinance and may be considering an attorney general’s opinion on the constitutionality of the matter. Doroshewtiz had suggested such an opinion prior to the vote but received no support from the other board members.
“This proposed ordinance is clearly unconstitutional in its current form, is vague and overbroad, and could serve to trample free speech and political speech in our community” Heise said.
“At a time when the state Legislature is removing over 70 unconstitutional, vague and outdated laws, Plymouth Township is headed in the wrong direction. I’m for less government and more freedom, which is what our constitution encourages; the last thing we should be doing is using taxpayer resources to intimidate or silence opposing views.”
Heise called the proposed local ordinance “chilling.”
Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was also highly critical of the proposed new rules.
“Parts of it (the ordinance) overreaches and could lead to unconstitutional prosecution,” Steinberg cautioned. He sent a letter to Price and township attorney Kevin Bennett following the meeting cautioning them about the proposed language and included briefs filed in similar cases the ACLU had successfully taken to court to protect the civil rights of individuals.
“Often times police end up going after unpopular people,” he said during a televised interview last week regarding the proposed ordinance.
The ordinance language presented for a vote differed markedly from the copy available on the township website.
Violation of the new ordinance would include a $500 fine and/or up to 90 days in jail and would be a misdemeanor which could be prosecuted in the local courts rather than in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Officials claimed the ordinance has nothing to do with restricting free speech.
“The proposed ordinance doesn’t prohibit constitutionally protected speech or activity,” township attorney Kevin Bennett said.’’ He added that the ordinance was identical in substance to a state ordinance already in effect on bullying.
Price stated several times that the ordinance was similar to one recently approved in Canton Township.
Police Chief Tom Tiderington, who would have responsibility of enforcement of the proposed ordinance, did not present the recommendation for approval. Tiderington concurred that the state already had a bullying law.
“It would have to be unique circumstances for us to bring criminal charges,” Tiderington said.
Price said that the ordinance language would be further revised and could come back to the board members for a vote later this month.