Local blogger Paul Ripp filed a claim Aug. 29 with the city of Fairhope that Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell denied his right to free speech by blocking him from speaking during the public comments section of the Aug. 28 Fairhope City Council meeting.
In the claim, Ripp wrote that Burrell “abruptly stopped” him from speaking during the meeting.
“Mr. Burrell told me not to say anything and that I would not be allowed to exercise my right to speak before the council,” Ripp wrote. “Furthermore, Mr. Burrell instructed Fairhope Police Chief Joseph Petties to escort me from the City Council room, which he proceeded to do. Mr. Burrell also shouted that I would be going to jail if I said a word.”
During the meeting, as Ripp approached the podium to speak, Burrell told him he would not be allowed to speak. The following audio comes directly from The Courier’s recording checked against footage from the City of Fairhope’s video archives.
Burrell: No, sir. Mr. Ripp, I’m not going to allow you to speak.
Burrell: No, sir, I’m not. You’ve relinquished your rights. It’s a privilege, and I’ve had more complaints about you getting up here and spreading innuendo, talking about citizens and employees and council members. Most people that I’ve talked to don’t want to give you the time of day. Chief, if you will show him back to his seat. Take a seat. I’m not allowing you to speak.
Ripp: Are you aware this has been done before five times?
Burrell: It doesn’t matter to me what’s been done before. It’s a right, not a privilege (pause) a privilege, not a right, so you can take your seat. I’ve heard enough from you.
Burrell: Is there anyone else who would like to speak? (To Ripp) You can go back and write all you want to. Don’t say a word. You’re going to go to jail.
Ripp: I will.
Ripp wrote in the claim that Burrell violated his “freedom of speech, assembly and association under the U.S. Constitution and the Alabama Constitution,” as well as the following common law causes of action: false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and wantonness.
Ripp is seeking an undetermined amount of compensatory and punitive damages in the claim.
When asked for a comment, Burrell called Ripp’s claim “totally frivolous.”
“I didn’t kick him out, and I didn’t violate his free speech,” Burrell said. “There was never an instruction for him to be removed. That was not my instruction to Chief Petties at all. I think he chose to walk out so he could say he got kicked out, which is not at all what happened.”
Nowhere in the recording of the exchange does Burrell instruct Petties to escort Ripp from the room, as Ripp alluded in his claim.
Burrell said the Alabama League of Municipalities has said people do not have a right to speak at council meetings other than public hearings and other exemptions.
“He’s up there to grandstand, and I just had too many people say that he should not be allowed to speak, including council members who say they are tired of me letting him speak,” Burrell said.
When asked for a comment by The Courier, Ripp said he felt Burrell should be removed from his role as council president for what occurred.
“You cannot deny someone free speech and for a sitting City Council President to do so at a public meeting is a blatant abuse of that right,” Ripp said. “Mr. Burrell should be removed as President of the council for using his elected office to censure the citizens of the community.”