BRIGHTON – Adams County Commissioners Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco voted last month to curb the free speech rights of constituents but the Democrats announced Monday that they will reverse their positions at a conference on the plaza in front of the county government building.
The duo had previously voted to confine free speech to a 945-square-foot zone far away from the entrance to the building to minimize the protests that erupted after the Democrat commissioners had imposed a stormwater tax on residents in the unincorporated county .
The ban on free speech drew attention from the media and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which was considering a lawsuit against the board of commissioners.
“I would have voted to rescind it, today,” said Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen, who has been ill for several weeks and unable to attend meetings to argue against the free-speech zone.
“It was wrong to pass it, but rescinding it is the right thing to do,” said Hansen who added that he has also objected to the stormwater tax.
Mark Silverstein, attorney for ACLU Colorado said the turn of events was welcome news.
“By banning demonstrations in the open plaza opposite the building’s main entrance, the commissioners violated a long line of First Amendment rulings,” he said. “These ‘public forum’ cases hold that citizens have the right to gather at the seat of government, express their views, criticize government policies and petition for redress of grievances.”
“The protection of free expression is especially strong under the Colorado Constitution,” declared Silverstein. “The Colorado Supreme Court has held that even a privately-owned shopping mall must accommodate citizens who want to engage in free-speech activities inside the mall.”
Tedesco told The Denver Post that the policy wasn’t clear, though he and Henry had voted for its passage on May 20 without comment at the public Adams County Board of Commissioners meeting. Hansen was absent.
“I don’t think it properly reflected our true intentions,” said Henry, who suggested that the policy was adopted to prevent demonstrators from interfering with people coming into the building to conduct business.
After agreeing to rescind the resolution to limit free speech, Henry again blamed the stormwater-fee protestors for the rule change.
The fee led to more than 400 people descending on the county building and protesting what they called a tax – a violation of The Bill of Rights Amendment which was passed statewide and requires a vote of the people.
Despite previous claims that protestors had disrupted county activities and possibly engaged in intimidation, the Adams County Sheriff’s Department said there had been no arrests and no injuries reported to them.
“They were respectful,” said Adams County Administrator Jim Robinson to the The Denver Post.
Gary Mikes, a leader in the group against the stormwater fee, said he was pleased to hear the two commissioners reversed their position on limiting free-speech. But, he said, they approved measures to limit public speaking in meetings to 30 minutes and set a minimum fee of $10 to obtain an audio recording of the study sessions where controversial issues are ironed out.
The Stop Stormwater Utility Association “will not be intimidated nor do we plan to be silent,” said Stan Martin, president of the group to The Denver Post.
“Our nonpartisan organization remains focused on getting the stormwater fee repealed,” declared Martin.