BOSTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Robert Schuler, a public official in the town of Shirley who has been banned from town property. The suit alleges that the ban is retaliation for Mr. Schuler's public criticisms of the Shirley Selectmen, and that it deprives him of constitutionally protected rights to free speech, to petition the government, and to due process.
In May 2011, during a meeting of the Financial Committee, Mr. Schuler expressed frustration about the Shirley Selectmen's lack of action on an impending budget deadline. He said, using obvious hyperbole, that the slow pace made him want to "pull my gun out and start shooting or something." The Shirley Selectmen, who were not even present at the meeting, subsequently issued a "No Trespass Notice" prohibiting Mr. Schuler from setting foot onto town property--even to attend meetings of the committees on which he serves.
The ban has remained in place, even though Mr. Schuler has publicly apologized for his remarks, and even though his committee colleagues support him. "Bob is a valuable member of the Shirley Finance Committee whose effectiveness has been significantly hampered by the order," said Frank Kolarik, the Finance Committee's Chairman. "I was presiding at the meeting where the statement was made, and in my opinion the comment was not an implied threat but was merely a statement of frustration with the ongoing Town budget process."
The Finance Committee's Vice Chairman, Mike Swanton, also agrees that the notice should be lifted: "I find Bob's insight, and problem solving skills to be a critical asset to the Finance Committee, an asset that cannot be fully realized without Bob's physical presence at the table during our deliberations."
Yet the Selectmen have continued the ban, which has now lasted more than 21 months.
The suit asserts that Mr. Schuler's rhetoric neither explains nor justifies banning him from public property. "The Constitution protects both popular and unpopular speech, including hyperbole," said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
ACLU of Massachusetts attorney Laura Rótolo explained, "Mr. Schuler used rhetorical language out of frustration, and he has apologized publicly for the words he used. The Selectmen don't get to punish him forever for that statement."
Since making the statements in question, Mr. Schuler has been reappointed to the Finance Committee, where he is serving his fourth term, and reelected to the town Sewer Commission, where he is serving his third term. If successful, this suit would permit him once again to be physically present at the meetings of those bodies.