ACLU calls Hobbs' act a violation Rights group decries council's censorship

July 26, 1992|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff Writer

MOUNT AIRY -- The American Civil Liberties Union has told the Town Council that it violated a resident's right to free speech by not allowing him to say "Ku Klux Klan" at a council meeting last month.

The council violated Charles Beck's First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from reading a statement about a new citizens group formed to oppose the Klan, ACLU Executive Director Stuart Comstock-Gay said in a letter dated Wednesday.

"We hope this is an isolated incident and not an indication of what to expect at future Mount Airy town meetings," he wrote.

Council President R. Delaine Hobbs, who cut Mr. Beck off during the June 1 meeting, said he disagrees with the ACLU, but he would not comment further.

He said he will discuss the letter with town lawyer Richard C. Murray and respond to the ACLU in writing.

Mr. Beck, 27, one of the founders of the Coalition to Improve Community Life, said he contacted the ACLU.

"I just think the town set a bad precedent in the way they deal with citizens," he said.

"They need to realize they can't keep a citizen from speaking after they've given the citizen the floor."

The Klan announced in April that it planned to visit Mount Airy and 10 other Maryland towns in a membership drive. The group has not yet marched here.

Mr. Beck and several other residents formed a citizens group tooppose the visit. They went to the June 1 council meeting to read a statement of the group's purpose.

Mr. Beck asked permission to read the statement right after Mr. Hobbs read a statement saying the mayor and council are proud of the town's ethnic and racial diversity and disagree with groups that promote racial intolerance. The statement did not mention the Klan.

Mr. Hobbs cut Mr. Beck off as Mr. Beck started to read his statement. Mr. Beck gave copies to the council members, who read them silently.

Mr. Hobbs then said he took "offense" at all but the first sentence of the state ment, because it was the only one that didn't mention the Klan.

After the meeting, Mr. Hobbs said he had attended the coalition's first meeting and supported its purpose.

Mayor Gerald R. Johnson and Councilman Oliver H. Davis said on June 1 that the Klan should not be mentioned at a public meeting.

"The less said, the more unhappy the Klan will be," Mr. Johnson said.

In his letter, Mr. Comstock-Gay said, "Town council meetings, once opened for comments by the public, have been regarded as public forums."

The coalition sponsored a rally July 18 to celebrate the town's diversity and oppose the Klan. About 100 people attended, Mr. Beck said.

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