WENTZVILLE • The ACLU of Missouri said Wednesday that it had settled a lawsuit against the city of Wentzville on behalf of a woman who said police forcibly removed her from a city council meeting for criticizing an “In God We Trust” insignia on the dais.
“The right to disagree with public officials without fear of intimidation or retribution is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy,” Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director, said in a news release. “We are pleased that the city of Wentzville will protect the First Amendment rights of people who engage with local government.”
The ACLU sued the city in April on behalf of Maryland Heights resident Sally Hunt, an activist who spoke against the city’s insignia at a Feb. 14 council meeting and was then escorted out by police. Hunt claimed she was interrupted during her allotted speaking time and that her First Amendment rights were violated when police removed her from the building.
The settlement announced Wednesday dismisses the suit in exchange for Wentzville’s agreeing to update its city codes and read a resolution at Wednesday night’s meeting “affirming its commitment to uphold First Amendment freedoms and acknowledging that members of the public of any or no religious tradition are welcome to participate in local government,” the ACLU said.
According to a statement from Wentzville spokeswoman Kara Roberson, the settlement does not require the city to pay Hunt damages, but its insurance has agreed to pay $2,670 to the ACLU to offset lawyers’ fees and legal costs.
Roberson said the city had not received an invoice for its own legal fees in fighting the lawsuit.
The city believes Hunt’s lawsuit “lacked merit” and is “pleased that the matter is resolved so that the lawsuit does not serve as a distraction to the elected officials and employees” of Wentzville. The settlement, the city said, recognizes that the city “denies that it violated Ms. Hunt’s First Amendment rights when she was directed to leave the Feb. 14, 2018, Board of Aldermen meeting due to conduct that the mayor felt was improperly disruptive.”
“The city of Wentzville is and always has been committed to ensuring that the First Amendment rights of its citizens and the public as a whole remain protected,” the statement said. “Through this settlement, the city is able to again confirm that the city will continue to enforce its code of ordinances evenhandedly, without regard to the content of the proposed speech or the viewpoint of the speaker ...”
Wentzville police officers will have to “independently assess if probable cause exists before removing someone from a meeting,” the ACLU said.
“I am pleased that no one else will be forcefully removed from a public meeting when they speak up about the government’s apparent endorsement of religion,” Hunt said in a news release. “No one should face retaliation because they shared their opinion in a public forum.”
Wentzville’s insignia was the source of a conflict at a later council meeting between a majority of the sign’s supporters and others who argued it violates separation of religion and state. The city of St. Peters has the same sign in its City Hall, jail and recreation center.
The Wentzville motto has been on display in large letters on the council dais since November 2017; Wentzville Mayor Nick Guccione has said that city officials approved it and that it was paid for with private funds, as were decals with the motto that are on city police cars and at the police station.
Guccione has said that Hunt, at the February meeting, exceeded her five minutes to speak and that he removed her because he thought she would be disruptive.